U.S. Navy ship sails in disputed South China Sea amid trade talks with Beijing

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BEIJING (Reuters) – A U.S. guided-missile destroyer sailed near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea claimed by China as U.S. officials join talks in Beijing during a truce in a bitter trade war.

The USS McCampbell carried out a “freedom of navigation” operation, sailing within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Island chain, “to challenge excessive maritime claims”, Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said in an emailed statement.

The operation was not about any one country or to make a political statement, McMarr said.

The statement comes as trade talks between China and the United States are under way in Beijing, the first round of face-to-face discussions since both sides agreed to a 90-day truce in a trade war that has roiled international markets.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have competing claims in the region.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in December agreed to put on hold a spiralling trade dispute of tit-for-tat import tariffs on hundreds of billions worth of goods.

Trump has imposed tariffs to pressure Beijing to change its practices on issues ranging from corporate espionage to market access and industrial subsidies. China has retaliated with tariffs of its own.

Fears have grown in recent months that the dispute is just one vector in a bilateral relationship that is fast cooling across the board, with top administration officials sharply criticizing Beijing for everything from human rights abuses and its influence operations in the United States.

The two countries are also at odds over regional security issues, including Washington’s overtures to the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.

China and the United States have in the past repeatedly traded barbs over what Washington says is Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea by building military installations on artificial islands and reefs.

China defends its construction as necessary for self-defence and says that it is rather Washington that is responsible for ratcheting up tensions in the region by sending warships and military plans close to islands Beijing claims.