BEIJING — A US warship sailed within 12 miles of one of China's largest artificial islands Tuesday, part of a continuing effort by the Pentagon to demonstrate that the United States remains undeterred by the rapid Chinese military buildup in the South China Sea.
The presence of the USS William P. Lawrence, an Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, prompted the Chinese military to scramble three fighter jets that monitored the destroyer, along with three Chinese ships, until the American vessel left the area.
''This operation demonstrates, as President Obama has stated, that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,'' said Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman. ''That is [as] true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.''
The Lawrence passed near Fiery Cross Reef in what the Pentagon calls a freedom of navigation operation and exercised its ''right of innocent passage,'' according to Urban. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on the operation. The vessel was not conducting military maneuvers and was allowed to sail near the reef under international maritime law, US officials said.
Two years ago Fiery Cross was little more than a cluster of rocks jutting out of the water, but in recent months the Chinese have built it into a military facility, complete with a runway, helicopter landing areas, and a port. The installation is one of more than a half-dozen Chinese-developed islands in the disputed Spratly Islands.
According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the US destroyer entered the area without China's permission.
''The American naval vessel threatened China's sovereignty, security, and interests and it harmed the safety of the people and facilities in the island, damaging regional stability,'' Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said in a regularly scheduled news conference. ''As we have stressed over and over again, China firmly opposes such behavior and we will take necessary measures to safeguard China's sovereignty and territory.''
The US operation came a day after the people of the Philippines went to the polls to elect a new president and just ahead of Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have laid claim to Fiery Cross, as has Taiwan.