Navy sends USS Curtis Wilbur near disputed island in South China Sea

Posted at 7:03 AM, Jan 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-30 07:03:32-05

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) is underway in the Philippine Sea in 2013. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes/Released)

The U.S. Navy sent a ship near a contested island in the South China Sea on Saturday to challenge “excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others,” a U.S. Defense Department spokesman told CNN.

“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas,” Cmdr. Bill Urban said.

“This operation demonstrates, as President Obama and Secretary (Ash) Carter have stated, the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.”

The USS Curtis Wilbur, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Triton Island, part of the Paracel Islands — an archipelago claimed by the three.

None of them was notified of the move.

“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” Urban said. “The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea. The United States does take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries, and that all maritime claims must comply with international law.”

The U.S. conducted a similar operation in October. China said it warned that warship, the USS Lassen, as it came close to reefs claimed by China in contested waters.

Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the operation was “a very serious provocation, politically and militarily.”

Much of the South China sea is subject to a series of territorial disputes between Asian nations.

And near the Spratly Islands, which Beijing calls the Nansha islands, China has built an artificial island with air strips that analysts believe will be able to accommodate bombers.