The following is the complete Jan. 30 statement on USS Curtis Wilbur’s freedom of navigation mission past Triton Island from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
I can confirm the Department of Defense conducted a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea on Jan 30 (Jan 29 EST), specifically in the vicinity of Triton Island in the Paracel Islands, to challenge excessive maritime claims of parties that claim the Paracel Islands.
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.
During the operation, the USS Curtis Wilbur, (DDG 54) transited in innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island.
This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and other, not about territorial claims to land features. The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally-formed land features in the South China Sea. The United State does take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries, and that all maritime claims must comply with international law.
No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law.
This operation demonstrates, as President Obama and Secretary Carter have stated, the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.
Since 1979, the U.S. Freedom of Navigation program has demonstrated non-acquiescence to excessive maritime claims by coastal states all around the world. The program includes both consultations and representation by U.S. diplomats and operational activities by U.S. military forces.
“This operation demonstrates, as President Obama and Secretary Carter have stated, the United States will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”
However, it will do so in the least provocative manner, which is why obscure Triton Isand was selected rather than high-profile Mischief Reef.