US Navy warships just challenged China with a South China Sea sail-by operation, and Beijing is furious

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US Navy guided-missile destroyers and guided-missile cruisersUS Navy guided-missile destroyers and guided-missile cruisersU.S. Navy photo by Lt.j.g. Caleb Swigart

  • Two US Navy destroyers conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea Monday, challenging China's claims to the Spratly Islands.
  • Beijing accused the US of entering Chinese waters without permission and engaging in provocations that threaten China's sovereignty.
  • The incident marked the second such US operation in the South China Sea this year.
  • Freedom-of-navigation operations occur frequently, but they have not stopped China's from bolstering its position militarily in the South China Sea.

The US Navy sent two guided-missile destroyers to challenge China in the South China Sea, and Beijing is outraged.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyers - USS Spruance and USS Preble - conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation Monday, sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese outposts in the contested Spratly Islands.

The purpose was to "challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways," as well as to show that the US "will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," Cmdr. Clay Doss, a US Navy 7th Fleet spokesman, told CNN.

Beijing sharply criticized the operation. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the US entered Chinese waters without permission and engaged in provocations that threaten China's sovereignty, Reuters reported.

China's claims to the South China Sea were largely discredited by an international arbitration tribunal three years ago. Beijing rejected the ruling and the authority of the tribunal.

The Chinese military has since bolstered China's military presence in the region through the deployment of surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, jamming technology, and other defense systems to Chinese-occupied territories in the region.

Monday's sail-by is the second US freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea this year. In January, the destroyer USS McCampbell sailed challenged China's claims to the Paracel Islands.

Read More: The US Navy sent the destroyer USS McCampbell and replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl through the Taiwan Strait

China accused the US of trespassing, and Chinese media announced that it had deployed "far-reaching anti-ship ballistic missiles" (the DF-26) "capable of targeting medium and large ships."

Read More: China moves 'ship killer' missiles into firing range as US warships infuriate Beijing in the South China Sea

The US has also sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait, drawing Beijing's ire.

During a South China Sea freedom-of-navigation operation in September, a Chinese destroyer challenged a US vessel to a showdown, forcing the US Navy ship off course and risking a potentially deadly collision.

The Chinese foreign ministry said that the People's Liberation Army Navy sent vessels to track the US warships sailing near the Spratlys and warn them to leave the area.

The US Navy, however, has stressed that it's not going anywhere. "We've got big interests there, so we're going to remain there," Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, said recently.

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