The Pentagon said Thursday the U.S. could soon launch a Navy ship toward China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, potentially causing a deep rift between Washington and Beijing, according to a published report.
The Washington Post, citing a defense official, reports the Navy plans to send at least one ship within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. China has set up territorial claim to international waters around the artificial lands.
The White House would have to approve any action by the Navy to send a ship through the disputed territory. Navy Cmdr. Williams Marks told the Post he couldn’t discuss future naval plans, but said that the Navy “will continue to operate in international waters in the South China Sea in accordance with international rules of navigation – and do so at a time of our choosing.”
The Navy Times reported Wednesday that the White House might soon approve such actions. If so, a ship would sail inside the 12-nautical mile zone surrounding the islands, which was imposed by China.
Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Fleet, echoed Marks’ sentiments in a speech in Australia Tuesday. He said that the U.S. will defend its right to move freely through international waters through “routine presence, exercises with allies and partners, and freedom-of-navigation operations.”
Defense officials told the Post the movement could be conducted by a destroyer or cruiser, both of which are capable of carrying helicopters and weapons.
Five other governments also claim the region in part or in total. The U.S. doesn't take a formal position on sovereignty but insists on freedom of navigation in the vital sea lanes and airspace above.
Asked about the Navy Times’ report at a daily briefing earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China has long made clear its position on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, along with its islands, reefs and atolls.
"I have not noticed the latest report you have mentioned. However, having heard what you said, we express serious concern about it," Hua said.
China and the U.S. both have discussed the issue on numerous occasions, including when President Xi Jinping visited Washington last month, Hua said.
"We hope the U.S. can look upon the current situation of the South China Sea from an objective and fair perspective and play a constructive role together with China in keeping the peace and stability in the South China Sea," Hua said.
The Navy Times report said rumors have been circulating since May about plans to send a ship through China's claimed territorial waters. It cited three Pentagon officials speaking on background as saying that Navy officials now believe "approval of the mission is imminent."
It's not clear how China might respond to such an action, although Beijing issued a formal protest over an incident in May in which a Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times that a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
The U.S. crew responded that they were flying through international airspace.
The U.S. and its allies, including the Philippines, have repeatedly called on China to stop the massive island construction, saying it has increased tensions in an increasingly militarized area and threatened regional stability. They say the project, which includes the construction of buildings, ports and airstrips, violates a 2002 regional pact signed by Beijing which urges rival claimants not to undertake new construction or take any step that would worsen tensions.
Speaking in July, Swift said Washington does not recognize any of the territorial claims and its position won't change even if disputed areas are reinforced by construction work.
"We recognize those claims as being contested and the contested nature of those claims is unchanged despite the reclamation efforts of any country, any country, not just China," Swift said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.