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WASHINGTON –– A United States Navy warship conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” Wednesday aimed in part at challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea, the second such operation in as many days near disputed islands that the US has accused Beijing of militarizing.

The operations come amid heightened tension between Washington and Beijing over the handling of the coronavirus and after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of exploiting attention given the pandemic to “bully” its neighbors in the South China Sea (SCS).

The guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill on Wednesday “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,” said Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, in a statement.

The Spratlys, called the Nansha Islands by China, are in the southern portion of the 1.3 million square mile-South China Sea. While several countries have claims on the island chain, the US has long accused China of militarizing the Spratly Islands by deploying anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles to Chinese outposts there.

“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” Mommsen said.

On Tuesday the guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducted a freedom of navigation mission near the Paracel Islands, which are called the Xisha Islands by China, challenging Beijing’s claims to the waters around the islands in the northern areas of the South China Sea.

US freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea are not rare, but they typically occur weeks or more apart.

The back-to-back missions are indicative of a new Pentagon strategy — “strategic predictability, operational unpredictability” — to keep foes on their heels, said Timothy Heath, senior defense researcher with the Rand Corp. think tank in Virginia.

Heath pointed to a similar move earlier in the month when the US Air Force ended its Continuous Bomber Presence on the island of Guam, opting instead to move B-1s, B-2s and B-52s into the region whenever the Pentagon sees fit.

“Just as the bombers at Guam are no longer consistently present there, US naval forces in the South China Sea are likely to carry out operations and activities in unusual patterns that are inconsistent with past, predictable patterns,” Heath said.

The US Navy said the back-to-back operations are just business as usual.