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article imageU.S. dispute with Beijing over South China Sea islands heats up

By Nathan Salant     May 18, 2016 in World
Beijing - Tensions between the United States and China worsened last week after the U.S. Navy sent a warship past disputed islands in the South China Sea.
U.S. officials made no secret of their concern over recent activity by China in the Spratley Islands, which have also been claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and others, by sailing a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denied that the sail-by by the USS William P. Lawrence was intended as a message for China, which has been extending the size of the some of the 14 islands, adding forces and building airport runways in the archipelago since 2013.
"This is not a pointed strategy calculated to do anything except keep a regular process of freedom of navigation operations underway," he told reporters at a news conference in London, according to the Reuters news service.
But China apparently received the non-message, as Beijing dispatched fighter jets and warships to monitor U.S. forces.
The United States accuses China of making "excessive maritime claims" to the islands, which are in a position to command navigation controlling trillions of dollars worth of trade between southeast Asian nations.
"These excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention in that they purport to restrict the navigation rights that the United States and all states are entitled to exercise," U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Bill Urban said via email.
But China says the United States violated its sovereignty and disrupted peace in the region.
"This action by the U.S. side threatened China's sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kanghesaid said in Beijing.
Both sides accuse the other of militarizing the South China Sea and have stepped up military patrols.
China's defense ministry said the increased U.S. activity proved its need for more "defensive facilities" in the islands.
But U.S. officials said last month that China needed to recommit to its pledge not to militarize the islands after using a military plane to evacuate sick workers from Fiery Cross.
"If the world's most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships of navy of smaller countries?" said Daniel Russel, an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.
China has reacted with anger in the past to freedom of navigation operations by the U.S., including an overflight of fighter jets last month near disputed Scarborough Shoal last month of bombers last November , and the squadron of bombers that flew near Chinese facilities under construction at Cuarteron Reef in the Spratlys.
But the U.S. naval thinks China is planning more reclamation and construction activities at Scarborough Shoal, which is within territory claimed by the Philippines, a close U.S. ally.
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