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US Navy conducting Sunday morning maneuvers in the South China Sea

29 May 2018

Pentagon officials have long complained that China has not been candid enough about its rapid military build-up and using South China Sea islands to gather intelligence in the region.

Chinese officials reacted angrily to the presence of two U.S. Navy warships in the South China Sea on Sunday, with a Defense Ministry spokesman calling it a "provocation" and "a serious infringement on China's sovereignty".

The two ships sailed within 12 nautical miles of China's disputed waters, according to reports.

An aerial view of Woody Island in the Paracels
REUTERS An aerial view of Woody Island in the Paracels

In a statement, ministry spokesman Wu Qian said Chinese navy vessels were deployed "to conduct legal identification and verification of the U.S. warships and warn them off".

China has controlled the Paracels entirely since violently seizing Vietnam's holdings in the area in 1974.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Monday challenged critics to provide evidence that the Duterte administration failed in protecting the country's rights over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

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In March, a U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a "freedom of navigation" operation close to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands.

Nighttime missions on aircraft carriers are considered far more hard and risky than those conducted in daytime.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

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These maneuvers come just days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation for China to attend the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC). This spring, China landed strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons on the island, a symbolic display of its deterrent power, and satellite imagery showed the arrival of surface-to-air missiles this month. It called on China to remove these systems.

The move prompted immediate criticism from the USA, which last week pulled its invitation to China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific because of Beijing's "continued militarisation" of the South China Sea.

China's foreign minister said China had a right to take whatever measures it deemed fit on its island holdings, and the defence ministry criticized the USA move as "unconstructive", saying it would do nothing to change China's resolve to "play a role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region".

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US Navy conducting Sunday morning maneuvers in the South China Sea