US naval patrol prompts Chinese protest as trade talks start

HONG KONG • China accused the US of “tricks” as two American warships sailed through waters claimed by Beijing on the eve of high-level trade talks.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s navy “warned off” the US warships yesterday as they attempted to assert free navigation rights in the disputed South China Sea. The ships sailed close by Mischief Reef, where China has built an airbase on reclaimed land, and the adjacent Second Thomas Shoal, which is occupied by the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying deflected a question about whether the move would impact trade talks expected to get underway today in Beijing. “You have observed very carefully, and observed a series of tricks by the US side. I believe you all see through these small tricks by the US side,” Hua told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

The so-called freedom-of-navigation patrols were reported earlier yesterday by Reuters, which cited an unidentified US official. The report said two guided-missile destroyers passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, a manoeuvre the US uses to assert that a waterway is free to international transit.

US Indo-Pacific Command didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the patrol. The American-side often doesn’t announce such sail-bys in the South China Sea, where China’s claims overlap with those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The sail-by comes as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer head for Beijing, the latest high-profile effort to resolve the two countries’ trade dispute before their tariff ceasefire expires on March 1. The trade fight has exposed a series of strategic disputes between the world’s two largest economies, ranging from China’s territorial claims in the Western Pacific to accusations of spying.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative last week said China dispatched almost 100 vessels to the Spratly chain in an effort to stop the Philippines from building on another feature known as Thitu Reef. Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a statement last Friday called on China to respect the country’s sovereignty.

The US has conducted several freedom of navigation patrols in recent months. In January, China urged the US to halt “provocative actions” after a US guided-missile destroyer conducted sail near the Paracel Islands, which are occupied by China and claimed by Vietnam. American warships have also sailed through the strait separating mainland China from democratically run Taiwan.

“We respect all countries’ right for freedom of navigation and flight under international law, but we firmly oppose any action to jeopardise the sovereignty and security of countries under the pretext of freedom of navigation,” Hua said yesterday. — Bloomberg