US warship sails near disputed islands in South China Sea, Chinese navy to carry out combat drills

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The warship USS Mustin sails near the port in Sihanoukville, 223 km (139 miles) west of Phnom Penh, October 11, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

WASHINGTON – A US Navy destroyer carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation on Friday, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, US officials told Reuters.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Mustin traveled close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. China has territorial disputes with its neighbors over the area.

This, as the Chinese military’s official newspaper said on Friday its navy will carry out combat drills in the South China Sea, describing the move as part of regular annual exercises.

Taiwan’s defense ministry said this week it had shadowed a Chinese aircraft carrier group traversing the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction – meaning into the disputed South China Sea – in what Taiwan judged to be a drill.

In a brief report on its WeChat account, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said the combat exercises would take place shortly, though it gave no details of timing, location or what ships would participate.

“This is a routine annual planned arrangement for the navy, the aim of which is to test and improve the military’s training level and to fully raise the ability to win. It is not aimed at any specific country or target,” the newspaper added, without elaborating.

China’s navy and air force frequently carry out drills in the South China Sea, where the government has been building man-made islands and constructing airstrips and other facilities, unnerving the region.

China claims most of the South China Sea, a key trade route and home to areas that are believed to hold large quantities of oil and natural gas. Along with China, parts of the South China Sea are subject to competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

China routinely rejects criticism of its activities in the South China Sea, saying that as it is Chinese territory, it can do what it wants.