WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy plans to send a destroyer within 12 miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea within the next 24 hours, a U.S. defense official confirmed to CNN.
The official said the mission now has the approval of President Barack Obama.
News of the ship’s plan was first reported by Reuters.
The ship could make the pass as soon as Monday night, barring any unforeseen circumstances, a U.S. military source told CNN. There will be air cover as well as reconnaissance in the air, flying in international airspace, the source said.
The aircraft will watch the ship and be there, if needed, to record and deal with any problems. The Chinese have not been informed, the source said, adding that no trouble is expected.
“This idea of what we call freedom of navigation operations is routine. As a former naval officer I can tell you I did it many, many times myself,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby on Monday. “It’s one of the reasons you have a Navy. To be able to exert influence and defend freedom of navigation on international waters.”
Kirby said one country doesn’t need to consult with another “when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters.”
“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters and you don’t need to consult with anybody to do that. That’s the idea,” he said.
But Chinese Embassy spokesperson Zhu Haiquan said, “Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.”
“We urge the United States to refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability,” Haiquan said in a statement Monday night.
The South China Sea is the subject of numerous rival — often messy — territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters.
In June, China had said that island building in the South China Sea was “almost complete,” although it did say that it would continue to build facilities on the islands it has already created.
China has repeatedly said its activity in the South China Sea does not target any other country or affect freedom of navigation by sea or air.
Chinese navy ships entered U.S. territorial waters off Alaska earlier this month, coming within 12 miles of the coastline during President Barack Obama’s visit to the state, U.S. officials told CNN.
The officials emphasized that China’s actions were consistent with “innocent passage” under international maritime law.
However, in the South China Sea, the United States has yet to breach the 12-mile limit accorded under maritime law — even though the U.S. doesn’t recognize the islands as Chinese territory, and their man-made nature may disqualify them from having any maritime zone. – CNN