U.S. Navy to directly challenge China’s territorial claims in South China Sea

Wednesday, October 14, 2015 by

(NationalSecurity.news) The U.S. Navy is planning to send a warship into the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit that China is claiming for its manmade island chain, perhaps within days, but the service is currently awaiting the go-ahead from the White House, the Navy Times reported Friday.

Plans to send a surface vessel through the claimed waters have been rumored since May, but Pentagon officials who spoke to the paper on background to discuss future operations said Navy officials believe a decision could come at any time now. If approved, the action would be the first since 2012 that U.S. Navy assets have challenged China’s territorial claims to the artificial islands, many of which have been militarized with airfields, anti-aircraft batteries, ships and aircraft.

Island-building projects that have taken place in the vicinity of the hotly-contested Spratly Islands have been at the center of rising tensions between China and the U.S. and regional allies since reports of the activity first surfaced in 2013. U.S. intelligence has closely monitored the reclamation projects since.

However, the United States and other countries have regularly disputed the legitimacy of the project and view the construction of artificial islands as an aggressive provocation.

The Navy Times further reported:

A spokesman for the National Security Council deferred questions regarding the Navy’s plans to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but drew attention to President Obama’s remarks before the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 28, where he said the U.S. has “an interest in upholding the basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and in resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force.”

Navy Cmdr. Bill Urban, a Defense Department spokesman, would not comment on future options but instead referred Navy Times to an earlier statement from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, when he said the “United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”

Last month David Shear, assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia-Pacific Security, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Navy had not sailed or flown within the 12 nautical-mile zone of the islands since 2012, before China’s island construction project got ramped up in earnest. Six other nations with coastlines along the South China Sea have also asserted claims to territory being staked out by China.

Later the same day House Armed Services Committee member Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia, sent a letter signed by 29 Republican and Democratic members calling the island-building projects a threat to freedom of navigation and the peaceful international order that has existed since World War II.

“In order to deter these actions and prevent further erosion of stability in the region, the United States must make clear that it is fully committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” the letter read, which then called for a “highly symbolic” passage of Navy ships and aircraft through the claimed zones, to send a message to Beijing.

Foreign Policy also reported Oct. 2 that the Navy was planning to conduct routine patrols within the claimed zones.

“It’s not a question of if, but when,” a senior Defense official told the magazine.

The move would lead to increased tensions with Beijing, say defense and policy experts, but failing to do so would send a far worse signal that the U.S. tacitly accepted China’s territorial claims as valid.

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