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."
OSD spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban declined to comment on future operations, but referred to Defense Secretary Ash Carter's comments from Sept. 1, when he said that the "United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world."
The news of the pending maneuver comes just a day after Pacific Fleet boss Adm. Scott Swift told a maritime conference in Australia that "some nations" were behaving in a manner inconsistent with international law, a clear reference to the ongoing dispute with China.
"It's my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law," Swift said, according to a report by Reuters. "Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters."
In September, David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific security, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. Navy hadn't steamed or flown within 12 nautical miles of the islands since 2012, which is before China's island construction project began in earnest. Six nations with South China Sea coasts have competing claims to the territory being staked out by China's island building.
Later that day, House Armed Services Committee member Randy Forbes, R-Va. sent a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 29 House members calling the island-building project a threat to freedom of navigation and the peaceful international order in place since the end of World War II.
"In order to deter these actions and prevent further erosion of stability in the region, the United States must make clear that it is fully committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," the letter read, calling for a "highly symbolic" passage of Navy ships and aircraft past the islands to send a message to China.
When reports that the U.S. was planning to challenge China's island claims surfaced in May, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged "relevant countries to refrain from taking risky and provocative action," according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Foreign Policy reported Oct. 2 that U.S. officials were planning a tougher stance in the South China Sea, including stepped up freedom of navigation patrols with ships and aircraft in the vicinity of the islands.
Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that passage through territorial waters is a routine Navy operation typically used to build a legal case under international law for freedom of navigation in international waters, and right of innocent passage within territorial waters.
Innocent passage, the right of a state to pass through the territorial waters of another, is usually conducted with little fanfare. But what makes the planned passage through China's newly claimed territorial waters significant is that the administration had previously prohibited the Navy from doing it in the Spratly Islands, Clark said.
"If you act like they have a legal 12-mile limit, even though the U.S. has said it doesn't recognize it, you are tacitly acknowledging those claims as legitimate," Clark said, adding that even if the claims were legitimate, the U.S. would have the right to pass through under the right of innocent passage.
The Chinese government claimed the same right when its navy's ships passed within 12 nautical miles of the U.S.-held Aleutian Islands off Alaska In September, after a joint exercise with the Russian military.
The U.S. and China's neighbors in the region are concerned that China is creating military installations on the islands. In June, images surfaced of a nearly complete 10,000-foot-long airstrip on one of the islands, big enough to accommodate military aircraft.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, a position that has put it at loggerheads with its neighbors and prompted countries in the region, including erstwhile enemies such as Vietnam, to turn to the U.S. to offset the newly aggressive China.
China's actions have also prompted renewed military-to-military relations with the Philippines, more than two decades after the U.S. was kicked out of the country following a wave of anti-American sentiment inside the former U.S. colony.
An agreement signed last year that allows U.S. forces to use Philippine military facilities has been a signature accomplishment in the Obama administration's strategic pivot to Asia.