The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius carries out a freedom-of-navigation operation near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Monday, April 10, 2023.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius carries out a freedom-of-navigation operation near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Monday, April 10, 2023. (Greg Johnson/U.S. Navy)

A U.S. Navy warship on Monday cruised near a chain of islands claimed by China, Taiwan and other countries, coinciding with the third day of Chinese exercises around Taiwan in the wake of meetings between Taiwan’s president and U.S. officials.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Milius conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, a group of about 100 islands between Vietnam and the Philippines, to uphold the “rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea,” the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a Monday email.

The Navy routinely sends warships near the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea to protest “excessive maritime claims” and “unlawful” restrictions, such as permission or advanced notice for “innocent passage” through territorial waters.

The entire Spratly chain is claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan; portions of the chain are claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The Spratlys are about 960 miles south of Taiwan.

Two days before the Milius’ operation, Beijing launched a series of exercises around Taiwan to protest Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s visit with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday and U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul on Saturday.

The freedom-of-navigation operation, however, was not a response to China’s actions, according to 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. j.g. Luka Bakic.

“These operations demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” he said in a Monday email to Stars and Stripes.

Bakic didn’t specify if the Milius interacted with Chinese or other foreign military forces during the operation but said “U.S. Navy vessels and aircraft routinely interact with foreign warships and aircraft while operating throughout the region.”

About 45 islands in the Spratlys are occupied by small military outposts from China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, according to the CIA World Factbook website.

During the operation, the Milius sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of several islands that China has modified and built military infrastructure on over the past decade.

Under international law, Bakic said, features like Mischief Reef are not part of a territorial sea because “in their naturally formed state” they are submerged during high tide.

“The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law,” he said.

The destroyer departed the area and “resumed operations” in the South China Sea, according to the 7th Fleet.

China typically protests such operations but had not made a statement as of Monday afternoon.

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.

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