The United States is considering sailing warships close to artificial islands that China has built in the South China Sea to signal it does not recognize Chinese territorial claims on the area, a U.S. defense official said on Thursday.
The Financial Times cited a senior U.S. official as saying that within the next two weeks, American ships would sail within 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in the Spratly chain.
The Navy Times quoted U.S. officials as saying the action could take place “within days” but awaits final approval from Barack Obama’s administration.
A U.S. defense official declined to confirm that any decision had been made but referred to remarks in congressional testimony last month by U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary David Shear that “all options are on the table.”
“We are looking at this,” the official said, on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last month, in reference to China’s South China Sea claims, that the United States would “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.”
The White House declined to comment on potential classified naval operations.
In May the Chinese navy issued eight warnings to the crew of a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft when it conducted flights near the artificial islands, according to CNN, which was aboard the U.S. aircraft.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news briefing on Thursday that China was paying attention to the reports of impending U.S. naval action and that it and the United States have maintained “extremely thorough communication” on the South China Sea issue.
“I believe the U.S. side is extremely clear about China’s relevant principled stance,” she said. “We hope the U.S. side can objectively and fairly view the current situation in the South China Sea and, with China, genuinely play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Obama said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping he had “significant concerns” about the islands when Xi made his first state visit to Washington, in late September.
Xi said at the time that China intended to militarize the islands, but Washington analysts and U.S. officials say China has already begun creating military facilities and the only question is how much military hardware it will install.
Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has said China’s development of the islands, including the building of runways suitable for military use, was of “great concern” and a threat to the region.
In congressional testimony on Sept. 17, he said the United States should challenge China’s claim to territory in the South China Sea by patrolling close to the artificial islands and was considering going within 12 miles of them.
China claims most of the South China Sea, where the Spratly Islands are located and through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims there.
Philippine military officials have said that China has repeatedly warned Philippine military aircraft away from the artificial islands in the Spratlys.