A US guided-missile destroyer carried out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near an artificial island controlled by China on Friday. China asserted that two People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates warded off the US vessel.

A US defense official confirmed to USNI News that the USS Mustin came within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, an artificial island in the Spratly Island chain where China has built a big airfield. The US warship is also said to have conducted maneuvers near the Chinese base.

“It was America’s first such operation since January and came a day after US President Donald Trump announced it would levy US$60 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese imports – triggering immediate retaliation from Beijing,” said a report in the South China Morning Post.

China termed the US move a provocation. “China holds indisputable sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea,” Chinese defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement via CNN. “By repeatedly sending military ships into these areas without authorization, the US has seriously harmed Chinese sovereignty and security, violated basic rules of international relations, and harmed regional peace and stability.”

US President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an order directing his trade representative to impose US$60 billion in tariffs on a range of Chinese products. Along with the tariffs, new investment restrictions will be erected and actions will be taken against China through the World Trade Organization, the president said. But the exact details of how and when Trump’s tariffs will be imposed remain unclear.

Chinese carrier headed toward South China Sea?
In related news, the Chinese Navy said, via the military’s official newspaper, on Friday that it is preparing to carry out combat drills in the South China Sea. The move was described as being part of regular annual naval exercises.

Taiwan’s defense ministry also said this week it had followed a Chinese aircraft carrier group as it passed through the Taiwan Strait in a southwesterly direction – toward the disputed South China Sea in what was believed to be a drill.