Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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New US Navy FONOP in the Spratlys Indicates Intent to Use Force against China


(Photo : US Navy) USS Dewey (DDG-105).

A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer named after the admiral that defeated the Spanish Navy in the Philippines in 1898 has completed the first freedom of navigation operation patrol (FONOP) of the Trump administration -- and the most daring to date.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105) on May 25 sailed to within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef to Filipinos) located in the Spratly Islands some 250 west of Palawan Island in The Philippines.

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Mischief Reef, which for centuries was part of the Philippines, was illegally seized by China in 1995. China has since built a military base with a large harbor and a 2.6 km-long airstrip on the reef, and reclaimed land covering 5.58 km2.

The navy said the USS Dewey carried out a "maneuvering drill" when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef to show China it isn't entitled to a territorial sea around it, said U.S. officials.

The operation near Mischief Reef was the boldest U.S. challenge yet to Chinese island-building in the strategic waterway -- and apparently indicates the Trump administration's willingness to use military force against China.

As expected, China protested the legal U.S. Navy patrol.

Analysts said previous FONOPS in the Spratlys involved "innocent passage," in which a warship effectively recognized a territorial sea by crossing it speedily without stopping.

The USS Dewey, however, conducted a "man overboard" exercise to show its passage within 12 nautical miles was not innocent passage, said U.S. officials.

"USS Dewey engaged in normal operations by conducting a maneuvering drill inside 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef," according one official cited by U.S. media.

"The ship's actions demonstrated that Mischief Reef is not entitled to its own territorial sea regardless of whether an artificial island has been built on top of it."

"We are continuing regular FONOPS, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future," said Commander Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman.

Greg Poling of the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies said that under international law, Mischief Reef is not entitled to a territorial sea as it is underwater at high tide before it was built up by China.

"This was a statement to the Chinese," he said.

"The previous two freedom-of-navigation operations only challenged China's demand for prior notification for innocent passage through the territorial sea; this one asserted that there is no territorial sea at all."

The USS Dewey is named after U.S. Navy Admiral George Dewey who, on May 1, 1898, as commander of the American Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron in the Battle of Manila Bay, paving the way for America's conquest of the Philippines a few years later.

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