By Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard
WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation" operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials told Reuters.
The operation, which infuriated Beijing, was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as China’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the destroyer Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands and carried out maneuvering operations. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.
Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The United States has criticized China's construction of islands and buildup of military facilities in the area, and is concerned they could be used to restrict free nautical movement.
The latest operation, the first since January, occurred just a day after U.S. President Donald Trump lit a slow-burning fuse by signing a presidential memorandum that will target up to $60 billion in Chinese goods with tariffs, following a 30-day consultation period that starts once a list is published.
When asked about the operation, the U.S. military said its activities are carried out under international law and American forces operate in the region on a daily bases.
"We conduct routine and regular freedom of navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future," said Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.
China's Defense Ministry said two Chinese naval ships had been sent to identify the U.S. ship and warn it to leave. It described the actions of the American ship as seriously harming China's sovereignty and security, which threatens regional peace and stability.
Such actions cause forces from both countries to come into close proximity and could easily cause a misjudgment or accident, and create serious political and military provocation for China, the ministry said.
China has always dedicated itself to protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, but opposes "illegal and provocative" moves in the name of freedom of navigation, it added.
"The provocative behavior by the U.S. side will only cause the Chinese military to further strengthen building up defense abilities in all areas."
In January, another U.S. Navy destroyer sailed near Scarborough Shoal, a disputed lagoon claimed by China in the South China Sea.
In a separate statement, China's Foreign Ministry said the country would continue to take all necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and peace and stability in the South China Sea, where it said the situation was developing for the better with the hard work of China and Southeast Asian nations.
The U.S. determination to "manufacture tensions" flies in the face of the wishes of countries in the region to seek cooperation and development and will not enjoy popular support, the foreign ministry said.
The U.S. military has a longstanding position that its operations are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and they are separate from political considerations.
China's claims in the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The U.S. military put countering China and Russia at the center of a new national defense strategy unveiled in January.
China's navy will carry out combat drills in the South China Sea, the military's official newspaper said on Friday, calling the move part of regular annual exercises.
Taiwan's Defense Ministry said on Wednesday it had shadowed a Chinese aircraft carrier group traversing the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction - meaning into the disputed South China Sea - in what Taiwan judged to be a drill.
The United States has been pushing allies to carry out freedom of navigation operations as well.
Britain last month said one of its warships would pass through the South China Sea to assert freedom-of-navigation rights.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Ben Blanchard; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)