In this file photo taken on October 21, 2016, the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). Picture: AFP PHOTO / US NAVY
In this file photo taken on October 21, 2016, the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73) operates in the South China Sea as part of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). Picture: AFP PHOTO / US NAVY

Hong Kong — Two US warships sailed through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea, an action that could infuriate Beijing as a new round of trade talks gets underway ahead of a looming deadline.

The guided-missile destroyers travelled within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands, Reuters reported, citing an unidentified US official. The reef is one of seven artificial structures that China has built by reclaiming land, and which the US alleges the Chinese have militarised.

The sail-by comes as US trade representative Robert Lighthizer leads a group of administration officials to Beijing, the latest high-profile effort to resolve the two countries’ trade dispute before March 1 — when the Trump administration says it will more than double tariffs on $200bn of Chinese goods if a deal hasn’t been reached.

China claims as territory more than 80% of the South China Sea. Five other countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have competing claims. The US regularly sends vessels through the waters to assert its right to sail in what it considers international waters.

China urged the US to halt “provocative actions” after a US guided-missile destroyer conducted a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol near the disputed Paracel Islands in the waters in early January. The US often doesn’t officially announce sail-bys in the South China Sea.

US Indo-Pacific Command didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking confirmation for the transit reported by Reuters.

Bloomberg