The United States is poised to send naval ships and aircraft to the South China Sea in a challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims to its rapidly-built artificial islands, U.S. officials told Foreign Policy.
The move toward a somewhat more muscular stance follows talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington last month, which fell far short of a breakthrough over how territorial disputes should be settled in the strategic South China Sea.
A final decision has not been made. But the Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after Chinese opposition ended diplomatic efforts to halt land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the waterway. The timing and details of the patrols — which would be designed to uphold principles of freedom of navigation in international waters — are still being worked out, Obama administration and Pentagon officials said.
“It’s not a question of if, but when,” said a Defense Department official.
The move is likely to raise tensions with China. But U.S. officials have concluded that failing to sail and fly close to the man-made outposts would send a mistaken signal that Washington tacitly accepts Beijing’s far-reaching territorial claims.
As the unprecedented scale of Beijing’s reclamation work came to light earlier this year, Defense Secretary Ash Carter asked commanders to draw up possible options to counter China’s actions in the South China Sea, which serves as a vital transit route for global shipping.