As part of its efforts to challenge China’s "excessive maritime claims," the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur sailed near the Paracel Islands, where Beijing has constructed a series of artificial landmasses.
"This operation demonstrated that coastal states may not unlawfully restrict the navigation rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise under international law," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday.
This was the fourth such operation in the past year, and the Decatur was shadowed by three Chinese ships. The Chinese Defense Ministry called the patrol “illegal” and “provocative,” and claimed that the People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels warned the Decatur to leave the area.
A highly-contested region through which roughly $5 trillion in international trade passes annually, most of the South China Sea is claimed by China, but there are overlapping claims by Brunei, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.
The United States has no claims in the region, but it has pressured regional allies to help stymie China’s growth. Recently, however, the Philippines has begun to move away from its partnership with the US. Newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte has taken steps to become closer with China.
"I have separated from them, so I will be dependent on you for all time," Duterte said, referring to Manila’s new reliance on Beijing.
"But do not worry. We will also help as you help us."
It’s hard to imagine that this latest "freedom of navigation" patrol was not related to Washington’s anxiety over the Philippines.
Pentagon officials have maintained that such patrols will persist.
"The US Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all," Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson said in July.
"This will not change."