…As US border security deal reached to avert new US shutdown***
Two U.S. guided-missile destroyers on Monday sailed near the Chinese manmade island of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
Last year, China added surface-to-air missiles to the contested island, one of three that the Chinese military fortified in 2018.
The destroyers conducted the passage, illustrating the continuing U.S. military presence in the area, to which China routinely has objected.
Cmdr. Clay Doss, U.S. Seventh Fleet public affairs officer, told Fox News in a statement: “Guided-missile destroyers USS Spruance (DDG 111) and USS Preble (DDG 88) conducted freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. Spruance and Preble sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in order to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”
The warships were shadowed by Chinese assets, but the interactions were routine and uneventful, according to a separate U.S. official.
Doss added: “We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), as we have done in the past and will continue to in the future. FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.”
China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes in the South China Sea over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.
Said Doss: “U.S. Forces operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe.”
The operation came as the Trump administration has prepared for another round of trade talks with the Chinese government.
Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin is leading a delegation set to meet with Chinese officials on Thursday and Friday. The talks are aimed at resolving a trade war that threatens to stunt global economic growth, in part by raising prices on goods for consumers and companies, officials said. The situation could get worse as a truce on tariffs is set to expire in early March.
In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans have reached an agreement in principle over border security to fund the US government and avert another partial shutdown.
The agreement contains only a fraction of the money President Donald Trump wants for his promised border wall and does not mention a concrete barrier.
The deal still needs to be approved by Congress and signed by the president.
Speaking later, Mr Trump did not say whether he would back it. “We’re building the wall anyway.”
The Democrats – who now control the House of Representatives – have refused to approve the $5.7bn (£4.4bn) for Mr Trump’s border wall, one of his key campaign pledges.
A bill must be approved by Friday when funding runs out for some federal agencies.
The previous shutdown – the longest in US history – lasted 35 days and cost the country’s economy an estimated $11bn (£8.5bn).
What is known about the deal?
The deal was struck in a closed-door meeting in Washington on Monday evening after several hours of talks, according to lawmakers.
It includes $1.375bn in funding for 55 miles (88km) of physical barriers, including “steel bollard” fencing, a small part of the more than 200 miles promised by the president.
Republican Senator Richard Shelby said all outstanding issues had been resolved.
“We got an agreement on all of it,” he said. “Our staffs are going to be working feverishly to put all the particulars together. We believe that if this becomes law, it’ll keep open the government.”
Earlier, the talks had reached an impasse with Democrats demanding a limit to the number of undocumented migrants already in the US who could be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Democrats gave up on that demand and instead it was agreed to reduce the number of beds in detention centres to 40,250 from the current 49,057, reports say.
Addressing supporters in the border city of El Paso, in Texas, Mr Trump said he had had no time to study the agreement, but stressed that he would “never sign a bill that forces the mass release of violent criminals”.
Fox News with additional report from BBC