Home » Budget Industry » UPDATED: USS Stethem Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Past Triton Island in South China Sea

UPDATED: USS Stethem Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Past Triton Island in South China Sea

USS Stethem (DDG-63) operating in the Pacific on March 22, 2017. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated with a statement from U.S. Pacific Fleet.

A U.S. destroyer came within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese holding in the South China Sea, a U.S. defense official told USNI News on Sunday morning.

USS Stethem (DDG-63) passed by Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain on Sunday to test claims by not only Bejing but also Vietnam and Taiwan, the official confirmed to USNI News.

Since the Trump administration has begun testing excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said they would not confirm reports of freedom of navigation operations outside of the yearly report that outlines the operations.

“U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight said in a statement to USNI News on Sunday.
“We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future. Summaries of these operations are released publicly in the annual DoD Freedom of Navigation Report, and not sooner.”

The passage was first reported Sunday morning by Fox News. Fox reported a Chinese warship shadowed Stethem during the transit.

While Pentagon officials are reticent to confirm details, it is likely Stethem conducted an innocent passage past Triton and tested Chinese requirement for prior notification before entering territorial waters and Beijing’s expansive claims around the Paracel Island chain.

“China claims illegal straight baselines that encircle the entire island group,” James Kraska, a professor of international law, oceans law and policy at the U.S. Naval War College’s Stockton Center for the Study of International Law told USNI News last year.

In October, USS Decatur (DDG-73) conducted a freedom of navigation operation that tested just the baseline. Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the territory which China has occupied since the 1970s.

In early 2016, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) came within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels — without prior notification.

CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe Photo

“This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas. The excessive claims regarding Triton Island are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” the Pentagon said at the time.

Stethem’s transit follows a May operation in which USS Dewey (DDG-105) passed within six nautical miles of the Chinese installation on Mischief Reef in the boldest statement the U.S. has made to date in challenging China’s claims to its artificial islands.

Without prior notification, Dewey came within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef and conducted a man-overboard drill as part of the test of Chinese claims.

While China’s militarization of its chain of artificial islands in the Spratly Islands chain closer to the Philippines have drawn the most international concern, Beijing has also been installing military equipment in its Paracel Island chain closer to Vietnam.

USNI News understands in May the Office of the Secretary of Defense presented the National Security Council a schedule for future regional FON ops to create a menu of options for the NSC to choose from when U.S. assets are in the region.

The following is the July 2, 2017 complete statement from U.S. Pacific Fleet to USNI News.

U.S. forces operate in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.

We have a comprehensive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) program under which U.S. Forces challenge excessive maritime claims across the globe to demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.

FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, we conducted FONOPs challenging excessive maritime claims of 22 different coastal States, including claims of allies and partners.

We conduct routine and regular FONOPs, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future. Summaries of these operations are released publicly in the annual DoD Freedom of Navigation Report, and not sooner.

  • RTColorado

    That’s one fine looking lady…fine lines, fast and a heavyweight puncher.

    • FelixA9

      Looks like a garbage scow compared to the new Type 55. A shame the USN, in their infinite wisdom, has cut the Zumwalt class (the hull the USN REALLY needs).

      • Alexander V.

        The US would win with the sheer amount of Burkes that there are, let alone their technology

  • BartolomeusGerard

    Freedom of navigation, the right of merchant ships and naval ships to pass without hindrance, is defended by PLAN all days of the year with the help of the newly built islands.
    USN passes a combat ship once in a while to defend its “right” to intimidate coastal countries, a “right” expressly denied by the Charter of the United Nations.

    • Airedale

      BG, The Hague Tribunal clearly stated that China has no valid claim on these islands. Countering your incorrect assertion of a right denied by the UN. The only right China has now is to clear out of these illegal fortified islands.

      • BartolomeusGerard

        The verdict was not by The Hague Arbitration Tribunal but by an irregularly constituted “Arbitration Panel”. When China acceded to UNCLOS it specifically excluded the arbitration paragraphs and the panel was set up without input from China.
        China’s claim on the South China Sea islands is identical to the claim by the Republic of China in 1947 and as US didn’t object to that claim seventy years ago they implicitly accepted that the islands are Chinese.

        • John33

          The panel wasn’t set up without input from China. China refused to be a part of it after being ask to several times. Their answer was “we don’t recognize your authority in these matters”. Second, only a small portion of these were ever “islands” to begin with. They were reefs, or rocks that only were visible during low tide. Not existing islands. So how did the US acknowledge China’s ownership of islands that simply did not exist during that time period? Perplexing eh? Also with all due respect, in 1947, China claiming the South China Sea is like Afghanistan claiming the whole Persian Gulf is rightfully theirs today. No country in the world claims international waters as part of their territory. Just China.

          • Stephen

            China ignores the EEZ of countries that have a legitimate claim to the Spratly & Paracels. No excuse for the militarization on constructed “islands”. The destruction of coral reefs; unacceptable. Next, China will offer to assist the Philippines in quieting its southern provinces… Watching & waiting didn’t work for Chamberlin; it won’t work for the US.

          • John33


          • BartolomeusGerard

            New islands are largely based on reefs but there are plenty of legitimate islands and these have their own EEZ. The Spratly and Paracel islands were recognized by France as owned by China more than a century ago.
            US as not a member of UNCLOS has no excuse to interfere in this matter.

          • Stephen

            Gotta remember, France thought they owned Indo-China & half of the Pacific Islands…

          • John33

            Here’s a thought. Why doesn’t china just negotiate a settlement with her neighbors? Pay them for their interest in the islands in question. Keep it all above boards. Not just take whatever they want. But no, this is posturing to say “we are the power in the western pacific.” It would avoid anymore problems and no country could say anything about it.

          • BartolomeusGerard

            That is just what China was doing when Hillary Clinton intervened in 2010.

          • BartolomeusGerard

            US interfering in the South China Sea is as absurd as Afghanistan claiming the whole of the Persian Gulf.

          • FelixA9

            That makes no sense at all.

          • John33

            Right, because China wants to just roll over it’s weaker neighbors, some who are our allies. How dare us interfere. We waited on the sidelines for way too long in 1933-1941. I think we learned our lesson not to do that again.

          • Aussie Andrew

            What is your excuse for all your regime change wars of the past 20 years?
            Even now USA is illegally operating military bases uninvited by Syria; a sovereign country.
            You are breaking international law every day.
            Go and do some voluntary bomb disposal work in Laos where you dropped two million tons of bombs on a country you were never at war with.
            Or; go to Vietnam and help children disfigured by your chemical warfare weapons.
            You think you can beat China in the East China Sea area you are sadly mistaken.
            Even Okinawan American military bases would not last 48 hours against China if you start a conventional war there.
            Check out your Rand Corporation experts recent analysis; best stay safe and stay the other side of the Pacific pal; Western Pacific is Chinese now.

          • John33

            That really funny. So regime change in the last 20 years…..our one and only unjustified one was Iraq. Bad mistake. Bad intelligence. Afghanistan wasn’t regime change. It was give up osama who you are sheltering or we attack. They didnt. We attacked. They fled. Remember that the Afghans did all the initial fighting to oust the taliban. Northern alliance ring any bells? Libya was mostly France, England and Italy. Did the US participate? Yes. But to support our allies. Vietnam is blaming the US for children born with genetic problems. Isn’t that the case in all nations of the world? It is. But you wish to blame the US. My guess is that you are Chinese with a name like “Aussie Andrew”. It’s a little transparent. As far as the East China Sea, the US won’t be the aggressors, but we will gladly send your navy to the ocean floor if you attack. Remember, even by their own admission they are still at least a decade behind the US in technology. The US says it’s more like 20 years. Either or. If you are feeling froggy…just leap. On the slight chance you actually are an Aussie, which I have a hard time believing, if you think the nation that killed 50 million of its own citizens during the revolution will deal with Australia favorably if it ever can defeat the US, you are a fool. I find it ironic that an Aussie would be so damning to the only power who would be willing to fight and die to save your country in difference to to a brutal nation that doesn’t believe in individual rights. Just ask Hong Kong how much they like living under Chinese tyranny. Poor, poor deluded Chinese pla propagandist…ooops I mean Australian. Haha. Funny, during the Manchurian occupation and slaughter, you didn’t want us to “stay on our side of the pacific”. In fact our blockade of Japan, is what got us into WWII. Standing up for China got us into a war. You’re welcome.

          • sferrin

            ROFL!!! You go girl!

          • sferrin

            Would be like the US claiming the entire Gulf of Mexico and everything encompassed by California / Hawaii / Alaska

          • John33

            It would be exactly like that. That’s why we don’t make those areas part of our sovereign territory.

      • Aussie Andrew

        It was a kangaroo court set up with a Japanese judge and NATO supporters and therefore China refused to attend as the biased result was easy to forecast..
        The Arbitration system is designed to arbitrate between two who disagree. There were never two parties at the tribunal (China did not attend) and so as far as any decision then China has every right to ignore it.
        Another point; UNCLOS has nothing to do with the tribunal and besides, USA has never ratified it.

    • sferrin

      That’s some serious butthurt “Bart”.

  • Matthew Schilling

    Now that it is typhoon season, perhaps mother nature can reclaim these islands, and cleanse them of Chinese pollution.

  • FelixA9

    ” it is likely Stethem conducted an innocent passage past”

    I sure hope not. That would be worse than doing nothing.

  • Aussie Andrew

    South China Sea;
    China Sea;
    China Sea;
    China Sea.
    Get used to it.

    • sferrin

      Those are some powerful drugs you’re smokin’.

  • kye154

    National Geographic recently ran several detailed articles about the underlying problems of the South China sea. It is very much like the series of Iceland-Great Britain Cod wars (1958 to 1976), and has evolved into becoming a competing turf battle with the adjacent nations, when conservation measures could have easily rectified the problem of over exploitation of native fish stocks, (like fish farming, similar to what the Canadians do with Salmon). The U.S. seems to not understand that, and has offered no solutions to the problem with those nations bordering the South China Sea, except to send naval ships through the contested area on the fatuous claim of “Freedom of Navigation”. Beyond that, the U.S. really has no national interests in the South China Sea, and putting its sailors at risk of getting killed over that, begs any logical explanation. But, it should not go without saying, the U.S. has done dumb things before. Seems like that is standard U.S. policy and practice..