WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is considering sending U.S. military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around rapidly growing Chinese-made artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, a U.S. official said Tuesday.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter requested options that include sending U.S. military ships and aircraft within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of reefs that China has been building up in the disputed Spratly Islands, the official said.
Such a move would directly challenge Chinese efforts to expand its influence in the disputed region by literally adding territory through a massive island-building exercise.
“We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade,” the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity, adding that any options would need to be approved by the White House.
Carter’s request for the development of options including using the U.S. ships and aircraft was first reported earlier Tuesday by the Wall Street Journal.
It quoted U.S. officials as saying there was now growing momentum within the Pentagon and the White House for taking concrete steps in order to send Beijing a signal that the recent build up in the Spratlys had gone too far and needed to stop.
Asked about the Pentagon plan, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing was “extremely concerned” and demanded that the U.S. issued a clarification of the remarks.
“Freedom of navigation certainly does not mean that foreign military ships and aircraft can enter another country’s territorial waters or airspace at will,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular briefing.
“We demand the relevant side talks and acts cautiously and does not take any actions that are risky or provocative to maintain regional peace and stability.”
The practice of sending ships and aircraft near the islands would be in line with regular U.S. military “Freedom of Navigation” operations, which it conducted last year to challenge maritime claims of 19 countries, including China.
China drew condemnation from Japan and the United States in 2013 when it imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, in which aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities.
The United States responded by flying B-52 bombers through the zone in a show of force.
Five countries as well as China lay claim to parts of the Spratly archipelago. They are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, but China claims nearly 90 percent of the entire South China Sea, a vital shipping route through which $5 trillion of trade passes every year.
Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said if the key policy response being considered to Beijing’s reclamation in the Spratlys involved a show of force, it suggested Washington and its allies did not have many good options.
“The risk of this is that China may use such deployments as a reason to try to challenge or confront U.S. forces,” he said.
The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has said urgent action is needed.
Reclamation involves adding to existing islands or creating new ones by dredging earth and sand from the ocean floor.
Recent satellite images have shown that since about March 2014, China has conducted reclamation work at seven sites in the Spratlys and is constructing a military-sized airstrip on one artificial island and possibly a second on another.
Last month, Reuters reported that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces were considering joining the United States in maritime air patrols in the South China Sea in response to China’s increasingly assertive pursuit of territorial claims.
A U.S. military source said a decision to begin such flights could prompt Tokyo to ask the Philippines for access to air bases, something that would allow aircraft to patrol longer.
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