The guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance fires its 5-inch gun during a drill in the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 22, 2018.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance fires its 5-inch gun during a drill in the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 22, 2018. (Ryan McLearnon/U.S. Navy photo)

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — Two U.S. Navy warships sailed this week close to disputed islands militarized by Beijing in the South China Sea, the Navy said Monday.

The guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance and USS Preble passed “within 12 nautical miles” of the Spratly Islands while conducting “freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS),” U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

The operations came as the U.S. and China were set to begin trade negotiations Tuesday in Beijing.

The FONOPS were conducted “in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” the statement said.

The South China Sea is a major shipping route, with an estimated $3 trillion worth of goods passing over the waters each year.

“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” the Navy said. “That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”

The Navy did not specifically identify what features the destroyers sailed past, but Reuters reported the ships had steamed near Mischief Reef, which is the largest artificial island created by China in the archipelago.

Before China built the island by dredging sand from the sea floor, Mischief Reef was a feature completely underwater and thus regarded by international law as part of the continental shelf of the nearby Philippines.

China has built military outposts throughout the South China Sea on islands also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Philippines.

The U.S. has not taken sides in these sovereignty disputes but has been unwavering in its assertions that international maritime law allows ships to sail near these sites.

American ships and aircraft routinely pass through the South China Sea, usually raising China’s ire. U.S. Navy ships conducted FONOPS near the Paracel Islands in January and the Spratlys last fall.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters Monday in Beijing that China’s navy had “warned off” the Spruance and Preble, according to a Bloomberg report.

“We firmly oppose any action to jeopardize the sovereignty and security of countries under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” she said.

Asked by a reporter whether the latest FONOP would affect trade talks, Hua offered an oblique assessment about “a series of tricks by the U.S. side.”

“I believe you all see through these small tricks by the U.S. side,” she said. Twitter: @WyattWOlson

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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