An American warship sailed through waters off the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Thursday, in the latest challenge to Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims in the region.

Guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands,” the US Seventh fleet said in a statement. 

USS John S. McCain. Photo: Wikicommons.

“This freedom of navigation operation… upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” it added.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, though Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam all claim parts of it.

The region is believed to have valuable oil and gas deposits. 

Further angering those countries, and the US, Beijing has moved aggressively to build reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

The move came amid a rise in US-China tensions over the coronavirus epidemic, in which Washington has accused Beijing of hiding and downplaying the initial outbreak detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Relations between both countries have been strained on multiple levels since Donald Trump took office in 2017. A trade war launched by Trump has infuriated Beijing, as did his authorization of a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province.

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