The United States official said that it is now time to counter and challenge Chinese behavior in their rapid reclamation, that without US military action in the South China Sea risked inadvertently reinforcing Beijing’s territorial claims wherein some allies in the region have, in contrast, expressed concern to Washington that a slow change in the U.S.’s approach could inadvertently draw them into a conflict.

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A move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea. The U.S. military is now considering to use aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said

By sending a flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and U.S. naval ships to well within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up to an artificial island and claimed by the Chinese in an area known as the Spratly Islands. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said

The U.S. has said it doesn’t recognize the man-made islands as sovereign Chinese territory. Nonetheless, military officials said, the Navy has so far not sent military aircraft or ships within 12 nautical miles of the reclaimed reefs to avoid escalating tensions.

Such moves, if approved by the White House, would send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace.

If the U.S. challenges China’s claims using ships or naval vessels and Beijing stands its ground, the result could escalate tensions in the region, with increasing pressure on both sides to flex military muscle in the disputed waters.

Last month, satellite imagery from defense intelligence provider IHS Jane’s showed China has begun building an airstrip on one of the islands, which appears to be large enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft. and according to U.S. estimates, China has expanded the artificial islands in the Spratly chain to as much as 2,000 acres of land, up from 500 acres last year, U.S. official said.

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In November 2013, the U.S. has used its military to challenge other Chinese claims. A pair of B-52 bombers flew over disputed islands in the East China Sea to contest an air identification zone that Beijing had declared in the area. In which Washington considers unfounded.

“A growing momentum within the Pentagon and the White House for taking concrete steps signaling Beijing rapid reclamation and buildup in the Spratlys went too far and needed to stop.” US official said.

While according to Chinese officials, Beijing is entitled to undertake construction projects within its own sovereign territory. They dismiss complaints about the island-building, saying the facilities will be used for military and civilian purposes.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters,” said embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan, using the Chinese name for the Spratlys. “The relevant construction, which is reasonable, justified and lawful, is well within China’s sovereignty. It doesn’t impact or target any country, and is thus beyond reproach.”

Mr. Zhu said that Beijing hopes that “relevant parties,” a reference to the U.S. military and its regional allies, will “refrain from playing up tensions or doing anything detrimental to security and mutual trust.”

China’s efforts to enforce control of the area in which China claims almost the entire South China Sea and it is one of the world’s busiest international shipping routes have caused growing concern in the U.S. and in Asia, where several nations have competing claims, including the Philippines, a U.S. ally.

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A senior military official said “the U.S. military aircraft patrolling in the area, avoid to approached the 12-nautical-mile zone declared by China around the built up reefs.  The planes haven’t penetrate the zone and have kept a distance from the islands and remained near the 12-mile mark so as not to escalate the tension.”

U.S. planes have flown close to the islands where the building has been taking place, prompting Chinese military officers to radio the approaching U.S. aircraft to notify the pilots that they are nearing Chinese sovereign territory. In response, U.S. pilots have told the Chinese that they are flying through international airspace.

A senior U.S. official also said. “That the USS Fort Worth combat ship, has been operating in recent days in waters near the Spratlys and We’re just not going within the 12 miles—yet.”

The military proposals haven’t been formally presented to the White House, which would have to sign off on any change in the U.S. posture. The White House declined to comment on the deliberations.

Officials said the issue is a complicated one because at least some of the areas where the Chinese have been doing construction are, in eyes of the U.S. government, legitimate islands, which would be entitled to a 12-nautical-mile zone.

The proposal under consideration would be to send Navy ships and aircraft to within 12 nautical miles of only those built-up sites that the U.S. doesn’t legally consider to be islands, officials say.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, reclaimed features aren’t entitled to territorial waters if the original features aren’t islands recognized under the agreement, U.S. officials say. Under that interpretation, the U.S. believes it doesn’t need to honor the 12-mile zone around the built-up reefs that weren’t considered to be islands before construction there began.

Several U.S. allies in the region have been privately urging the White House to do more to challenge Chinese behavior, warning Washington that U.S. inaction in the South China Sea risked inadvertently reinforcing Beijing’s territorial claims, U.S. officials said. Some allies in the region have, in contrast, expressed concern to Washington that a change in the U.S.’s approach could inadvertently draw them into a conflict.

“It’s important that everyone in the region have a clear understanding of exactly what China is doing,” a U.S. official said. “We’ve got to get eyes on.” The U.S. has been using satellites to monitor building at the islands.

In recent months, the White House has sought to increase pressure on Beijing to halt construction on the islands through diplomatic channels, as well as by calling out the Chinese publicly in recent press briefings and government reports.

The U.S. Navy regularly conducts “freedom of navigation transits” in the region, including across the South China Sea. But the Navy has yet to receive explicit authorization from the administration to do so within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands made by Beijing.

A new standoff with China would add to mounting security crises facing the U.S. in other regions. (W.S.J.)

 

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