The United States has informed its allies in Asia that it plans to start conducting naval patrols near the artificial islands constructed by China in the largely disputed South China Sea. The move could result in increasing tensions between the United States and China.
The patrols are being called the “Freedom of Navigation Patrols”, and they will come within 12 nautical miles of the islands. The purpose of these patrols is to challenge efforts by China to claim large portions of the area, supposedly for strategic purposes.
China has constructed military airstrips on some of the islands, and they might be planning a full-fledged military base. China has claimed most of the South China Sea to be part of its sovereign territory. The United States has been warned by China in the past not to come too close to the islands.
Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter and Secretary of the State John Kerry met with leaders from Australia to discuss the patrols. Leader of the Pacific Command of the United States Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr. also took part in the meetings.
American leaders have not specified when the patrolling would begin, but it is likely that they waited until Chinese President Xi Jinping completed his American visit so that the matter would not be a distraction.
There has been much debated between the Obama Administration and America’s Asian allies over how to respond to China’s activity in the South China Sea. Some leaders say that countries need to force China out of areas that do not rightfully belong to China. Others want to leave the situation alone, as they believe that taking action would result in further military buildup.
Meanwhile, officials from China have stated that they plan to take action if American warships come within 12 miles of the islands. It is unknown what kind of action they would plan to take.
A spokesperson from the ministry of China Hua Chunying said, “There is no way for us to condone infringement of China’s territorial sea and airspace by any country under the pretext of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight. China is severely concerned about reports that the United States planned patrols around the artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.”
While meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China does not plan to militarize the islands. President Jinping went on to stress the importance of navigational freedom. He says that the United States can sail or fly anywhere they want to, as long as they do not violate international territorial laws.
Based on the United Nations Convention regarding the Law of the Sea, 12 mile territorial limits are placed on naturally formed islands. However, this does not necessarily include artificial islands.
Five other nations also make territorial claims in the South China Sea.