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US Navy conducting Sunday morning maneuvers in the South China Sea

29 May 2018

China's military announced Sunday that it had despatched warships to challenge two US Navy vessels that sailed through waters in the South China Sea that China claims as its own.

USA officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Reuters news agency that two military vessels came within 12 nautical miles (around 22km) of the disputed Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbours.

Several US officials who declined to be named said the two US warships came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, maneuvering near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the operations.

The Chinese confronted the U.S. ships and warned them to leave, the defence ministry said in a statement posted on its website on Sunday, but other details of the encounter were not immediately clear.

In a statement, the ministry said the military immediately dispatched naval ships and aircraft to "warn them off".

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In a separate statement, China's foreign ministry urged Washington to stop such actions.

The U.S. ships were performing so-called "freedom of navigation operations" meant to exercise the U.S. right to navigate the waters under worldwide law, as China's claims over the South China Sea aren't internationally recognized.

China now asserts its right to the islands.

The dispute in the South China Sea has strained not only the relations between China and its neighbors, but has also made companies and countries very careful in exploring for oil resources in the area.

The Pentagon cited strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Islands.

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The statement added that sucgh routine and regular operations "are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements".

Earlier this month, sources close to the Vietnamese unit of Russia's Rosneft told Reuters that there were concerns about China's possible reaction to the drilling of a production well off the coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea that Rosneft had started days earlier.

But China will miss out on the exercises this year, which are held in Hawaii, following Mattis' decision.

'It's also a decision taken lightly and is unhelpful to mutual understanding between China and the US, ' Wang said at a press conference with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the two met in Washington.

Experts believe China - North Korea's largest trading partner - was behind the recent derailment of the June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and the North's leader, Kim Jong Un. Duterte has repeatedly said the country can not afford to go to war against China, but has promised to bring up the arbitral ruling with the Asian giant during his term.

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US Navy conducting Sunday morning maneuvers in the South China Sea