The US Navy sent two warships to a disputed archipelago in the South China Sea on May 28 in its latest symbolic protest against China’s claims there.
Reuters first reported that the USS Higgins and the USS Antietam ventured within 12 miles of the Paracel Islands in a demonstration the Pentagon calls a “freedom of navigation operation” or FONOP. The move signals US rejection of China’s claims of political control in the South China Sea.
The objective of their sail-by was a speck of land called “Woody Island,” where China has developed airstrips and port facilities in recent years as part of a broader strategy of establishing bases in these islands to demonstrate and exercise its political claims. This spring, China landed strategic bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons on the island, a symbolic display of its deterrent power, and satellite imagery showed the arrival of surface-to-air missiles this month.
The Vietnamese government protested China’s move as a violation of its sovereign claim to the islands—exactly the language used by China to protest US actions today after sending its own warships to warn away the Americans.
You can see the expansion of the Woody Island’s roads and buildings in this time-lapse provided to Quartz by satellite-imaging company Planet:
The island is one of many that lay behind the “nine dash line,” a diplomatic term of art for China’s political vision for the South China Sea, which is at the center of a web of claims by nearby nations:
In March, the US sent a destroyer on a FONOP to the Spratly Islands. In response, China increased its naval activity there, including a parade of warships that was also captured by Planet satellites.