US destroyer in South China Sea
Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) in the South China Sea Diana Quinlan/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters

The US Navy Third Fleet, headquartered in San Diego, reportedly ordered the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur to sail near islands claimed by China in the hotly contested South China Sea last week, it has emerged on Tuesday (25 October).

The US conducted the freedom-of-navigation operation in the sea on 21 October near the Paracel Islands, and other islets and reefs, in an apparent attempt to challenge China's "excessive maritime claims". The act drew an angry rebuke from China, which accused Washington of deliberately provoking tensions in the region. Beijing refers to the Paracel islands as Xisha.

The naval activity was reportedly aimed at strengthening Washington's maritime powers in the Asian region, according to Reuters. It was the first time the US had conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation without its Navy's Seventh Fleet based in Japan.

The Third Fleet has not sent out its ships to Asia since the Second World War, but commanding vessels now would mean the Navy can conduct maritime operations on two fronts in Asia — the Korean peninsula and the Philippines — at the same time, sources, who asked not to be identified told the news agency.

"It is the first iteration of what will be a more regular operations tempo," the source said.

Ryan Perry, spokesperson for the Third Fleet, confirmed the San Diego fleet's role in commanding the USS Decatur. The guided-missile destroyer is part of a three-ship Surface Action Group and was sent to the disputed waters six months ago, he said.

The Third Fleet's command is reported to have come after US Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift hinted at expanding the role of the Third Fleet.

Earlier in June, the Third Fleet announced it would send more ships to East Asia, amid heightened tensions with China. This was after it first deployed its USS Spruance and the USS Momsen — both guided-missile destroyers — to the region in April to undertake a range of naval exercises. The fleet deployment was reported to have been part of US President Barack Obama's plan to shift nearly 60% of the country's naval assets in Asia to deal with the regional concerns allegedly caused by China's maritime assertiveness.

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