US Navy sails from Thailand into disputed South China Sea

Xi Jinping. File

It was the second "freedom-of-navigation operation", or "fonop", conducted during the presidency of Donald Trump, following a drill in late May in which a USA warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea. The destroyer USS Stethem passed less than 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, the official told AFP.

Last October, the USS Decatur carried out a freedom of navigation operation near the area.

China did not immediately issue a response.

This operation, which may cause the anger of Beijing, is the second of this type in the south China sea since the arrival in power of the administration to Trump. The same day, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.

China has continued to militarize its outposts there - despite a pledge to the contrary - as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year.

For his part, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto C. Abella told reporters in a news conference on Friday that Manila will follow Mr. Duterte's "non-combative and non-adversarial" approach in fixing issues with China. Fox News first reported on Sunday's exercise.

Trump has heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, but his administration has also stepped up pressure on Beijing as he has become frustrated that China has not done more to pressure North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs.

USS Kidd in the South China Sea in 2014. File
USS Kidd in the South China Sea in 2014. File

But when those efforts failed to produce results - Pyongyang conducted new missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions - the American president made his frustration known.

Trump is scheduled to speak with Xi on Sunday at 8:45 pm (00h45 GMT Monday), 45 minutes after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Disputed: Triton Island is located in the South China Sea and its ownership is disputed as it is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The worldwide standard is that territorial waters extend 12 miles from a shoreline.

China has built new military facilities on islands in the South China Sea, a United States think tank reported on Thursday, a move that could raise tensions with Washington, which has accused Beijing of militarising the vital waterway.

The United States has challenged annexations of these islets and advocated for a diplomatic settlement to the disputes.

On Sunday the Pentagon sent a destroyer, the USS Stethem, to sail close to the shore of Triton Island - one of a number in the Paracel Island chain that China claims ownership of.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said new satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities under construction on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.

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