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US warship sails near Chinese islands in South China Sea as trade war rages on

Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73) operates in the South China Sea on Oct. 13, 2016. (Photo by Reuters)

A US Navy warship has sailed near Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, according to a US official, a move that is expected to intensify already high-running tensions between the two sides amid a growing trade war.

The close pass took place on Sunday, when the USS Decatur guided-missile destroyer traveled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands, an unnamed US official told Reuters.

This is the latest in a series of similar missions by the US to stop what it calls China’s plans to limit “freedom of navigation” in the strategic waters, which acts as a gateway to about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade each year.

While China has repeatedly denied the US claim, the official said Washington had no plans to stop the missions.

“We conduct routine and regular freedom-of-navigation operations, as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” the US official said.

Two US Navy warships sailed near South China Sea islands claimed by China in May.

China’s sovereignty claims have been disputed by other countries surrounding the sea, namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Washington has also criticized Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the region as an attempt to further influence movement in the sea.

Beijing, however, says the islands – some of which host an array of military equipment from radars to missile systems-- serve a merely defensive purpose in the country’s military strategy.

The latest taunting move by the US Navy comes at a time that relations between the US and China are particularly tense due to what US President Donald Trump has called Beijing’s unfair trade policy.

He has also accused Beijing of blocking US investment and stealing US intellectual property.

Under this pretext, Trump has slapped high tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. Beijing has hit back with retaliatory duties on $50 billion of US products.

Friction between the world’s two biggest economies hit a new high last week, when Trump accused China of seeking to interfere in the upcoming US congressional elections in early November.

The tensions have grown to include military ties between the two sides, as last week Beijing rejected a US warship’s request to visit Hong Kong.

Beijing has also postponed joint military talks with the Pentagon after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military over buying Russian weapons.

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