US Navy To Send Destroyer Within 12 Miles Of Chinese Islands
ByAndrea Shalal and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The U.S. Navy plans to send the destroyer USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea within 24 hours, in the first of a series of challenges to China's territorial claims, a U.S. defense official said on Monday.
The patrol would occur near Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago, features that were formerly submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project to turn them into islands in 2014.
The ship would likely be accompanied by a U.S. Navy P-8A surveillance plane and possibly P-3 surveillance plane, which have been conducting regular surveillance missions in the region, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Additional patrols would follow in coming weeks and could also be conducted around features that Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys, the official added.
“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” said the official. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred questions on any specific operations to the Pentagon but said the United States had made clear to China the importance of free flow of commerce in the South China Sea.
"There are billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world," Earnest told a news briefing. "Ensuring that free flow of commerce ... is critical to the global economy," he said.
The patrols will mark the most serious U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around the islands and follows months of deliberation.
The move risks significantly upsetting already strained ties with China, the world's second-biggest economy, with which U.S. business and economic interests are deeply intertwined.
China claims most of the South China Sea and on Oct. 9 its Foreign Ministry warned that Beijing would "never allow any country to violate China's territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight."
It would be the first time the United States has gone within 12 miles of the features since China began building the reefs up in 2014. It last went within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012.
The patrols will come just weeks ahead of a series of Asia-Pacific summits President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to attend in the second half of November.
The United States argues that under international law, building up artificial islands on previously submerged reefs does not entitle a country to claim a territorial limit and that it is vital to maintain freedom of navigation in a sea through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year.
Washington worries that China has built up the islands with the aim of extending its military reach in the South China Sea.