Navy steams near contested Spratly Island reefs militarized by China
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy on Saturday sent a warship steaming past two of the seven features China has militarized in the contested Spratly Islands, according to the 7th Fleet.
The USS Montgomery operated near Johnson and Fiery Cross reefs, according to Navy photos from the advanced littoral combat ship.
Johnson and Fiery Cross reefs are among the seven Spratly Island land features China has militarized, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Vietnam and Taiwan also claim the reefs.
The Spratlys are made up of approximately 100 land features, all of which China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim. The Philippines and Malaysia also lay claim to portions of them.
China’s efforts to extend its influence in the region are considered most aggressive. In August, for example, the Pentagon accused Beijing of “bullying tactics” against other nations bordering the South China Sea.
The United States does not recognize any nation’s sovereignty over the Spratly Islands; instead it considers the area as international waters.
The Navy did not report the path the Montgomery sailed through the island chain.
Military forces of countries that claim the Spratlys occupy about 45 of the islands, according to the CIA World Factbook. China has built up and militarized seven of them, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The region is rich in fishing grounds and untapped oil and gas deposits, the CIA factbook says.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the passage was considered a freedom-of-navigation operation, which typically bring U.S. warships within 12 nautical miles of the shoreline of an island or reef over which a state is claiming ownership in defiance of international law.
The operations rebuke claims by treating disputed islands’ surrounding waters as international instead of territorial, which would require the U.S. to request prior permission to sail through.
Navy photo captions from Saturday describe the mission near the reefs as “routine operations.” Navy officials commonly refer to freedom-of-navigation operations as routine and regular.
The Navy in February sent the guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble through the Spratlys. In May, the Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Gaven and Johnson reefs with the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon.
The Montgomery’s passage Saturday came about a week after the Navy sent the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh through the Taiwan Strait, the first such transit this year. Like freedom-of-navigation operations, U.S. warships passing through the Taiwan Strait demonstrate “the U.S. commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Keiley said last week.
Seventh Fleet officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.