The first freedom of navigation (FON) exercise conducted by the US Pacific Fleet's USS Lassen in the South China Sea has provoked international headlines and stern warnings from China.
The Arleigh Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer sailed within the 12 nautical mile limit set by China surrounding land on Subi Reef, an artificial island built by China during massive land reclamation effort over the past two years..
China's Foreign spokesman Lu Kang said Lassen had entered its water illegally and the US Ambassador was summoned by the Foreign Ministry in protest.
A Chinese Guided Missile destroyer shadowed the Lassen as it conducted the exercise, but the US Navy reported the passage had occurred without incident. The Chinese People's Liberation Army navy vessel broadcast repeated warnings to the US destroyer stating that it was proceeding in violation of China's sovereignty.
Reuters reported that China's Kang telling a daily briefing if the United States continued to "create tensions in the region," China might conclude it had to "increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities".
Minister for Defence Senator Marise Payne issued a short statement pledging Australia's full support, stating "it was important to recognise that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea".
She added that with approximately 60 per cent of Australia's exports passing through the sea, Australia has a legitimate interest in the "maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation and overflight".
The last freedom of navigation operation conducted by the US in the South China Sea was in 2012, but the US has stated there will be more frequent demonstrations of its rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the area, and they won't necessarily be aimed at China. Vietnam and the Phillippnes also have substantial maritime claims in the South China Sea.