The Navy is preparing to send a surface ship inside the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims for its man-made island chain, an action that could take place within days but awaits final approval from the Obama administration, according to military officials who spoke to Navy Times.
Plans to send a warship through the contested space have been rumored since May, but three Pentagon officials who spoke to Navy Times on background to discuss future operations say Navy officials believe approval of the mission is imminent.
If approved, it would be the first time since 2012 that the U.S. Navy has directly challenged China’s claims to the islands’ territorial limits.
The land reclamation projects in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands have been the focus of increasing tensions between China and the United States along with its regional allies, including the Philippines, since reports of the land reclamation project began surfacing in 2013. However, the U.S. and other nations have disputed the legitimacy of the islands built by China in what is viewed as an act of regional aggression.
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.”