The U.S. Navy is considering sailing a warship within 12 miles of the disputed artificial islands in the South China Sea. The action could take place within days, according to military officials, but awaits final approval from the White House, the Navy Times reported Thursday. Sailing a U.S. Navy ship in those waters would signal the U.S. does not recognize China’s claims of the islands and considers the area international waters.
An official, who remained anonymous, said the decision to conduct a “freedom of navigation operation” in water surrounding the disputed Spratly Islands claimed by China has not been made yet and would need approval from the White House, Stars and Stripes reported. The U.S. Navy has not sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed territory since 2012.
“U.S. forces are present and active in and around the South China Sea and East China Sea on a daily basis,” said Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Department of Defense spokesman, Stars and Stripes reported. “In addition, we have one of the most robust – if not the most robust – freedom of navigation programs in the world. Beyond that, I can’t comment on current or future operations.”
China has claimed the majority of the South China Sea. International maritime law states that a nation can claim water extending 12 nautical miles from its coasts as sovereign territory. The U.S. has seven combat ships in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, with one destroyer conducting “presence operations” in the South China Sea, which is meant to serve as a reinforcement of the U.S. ship’s right to be there, said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Hawkins, Stars and Stripes reported.
China has been paying attention to the reports of looming U.S. naval action, according to Hua Chunying, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, and has maintained “extremely thorough communication,” about the South China Sea dispute with the U.S.
“I believe the U.S. side is extremely clear about China’s relevant principled stance," Chunying said at a news briefing Thursday, Reuters reported. "We hope the U.S. side can objectively and fairly view the current situation in the South China Sea, and with China, genuinely play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea.”