U.S. Sails Warship Near Chinese-Claimed Reef in South China Sea

(Reuters) -
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy, May 21, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo)

A U.S. navy warship sailed close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea on Tuesday, a U.S. Department of Defense official said, days after China warned that criticism of China over the South China Sea will rebound like a coiled spring.

The “freedom of navigation” operation by the USS William P. Lawrence, traveling within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, was to “challenge excessive maritime claims of some claimants in the South China Sea,” Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said.

“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,” Urban said in an emailed statement.

“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law.”

Facilities on Fiery Cross Reef include a 10,000-foot runway and Washington is concerned that China will use it to press its extensive territorial claims at the expense of weaker rivals.

The Pentagon last month called on China to reaffirm that it has no plans to deploy military aircraft in the disputed Spratly Islands after Beijing used a military plane to evacuate sick workers from the Fiery Cross airstrip.

The move comes ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama to Vietnam later this month.

China has reacted with anger to previous U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations, and says that there has never been a problem with freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea.