The move is likely to anger Beijing at a time of tense ties between the world’s two biggest economies. The busy waterway is one of a growing number of flashpoints in the US-China relationship, which also include a trade war, US sanctions and Taiwan. A US military spokesman confirmed US destroyer Preble carried out the operation.
Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, said: “Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Reef in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
The US operation is the second in the South China Sea in the last month.
The US guided-missile destroyers Preble and Chung Hoon travelled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands on May 6.
The operation was the latest attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters, where Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies operate.
China claims almost all of the strategic South China Sea and frequently lambasts the US and its allies over naval operations near Chinese-occupied islands.
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims in the region.
China and the US have repeatedly traded barbs in the past over what Washington says is Beijing’s militariation of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.
China defends its construction as necessary for self-defense and says the United States is responsible for ratcheting up tension in the region by sending warships and military planes close to islands Beijing claims.
Last month, China’s navy chief said freedom of navigation should not be used to infringe upon the rights of other nations.
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, told an audience at the National Review Institute’s 2019 Ideas Summit that “there is an important relationship between the US and China”.
But he added: “Their moving into the South China Sea is not because they want freedom of navigation.
“Their efforts to build ports around the world aren’t because they want to be good shipbuilders and stewards of waterways, but rather they have a state national security element to each and every one of them.”