The U.S. Navy sent its third warship in less than seven months into China-claimed waters of the South China Sea as tensions rise ahead of an international court’s ruling on the territorial dispute. The USS William P. Lawrence, a guided-missile destroyer, on Tuesday sailed within the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone around Fiery Cross Reef, a feature in the Spratly Islands where China has dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of sand and coral to create an island on which it has built an airstrip.

The transit was a “freedom-of-navigation” operation by the U.S. military to demonstrate the right to fly and sail through what it considers international waters and airspace. The reef is also claimed by the Philippines, which is contesting China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a 1947 Chinese map known as the nine-dash line, along with reefs and atolls in the waters. READ MORE