The US Navy is preparing to sail a warship near artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea in a long-anticipated challenge to what it considers Beijing's "excessive claim" of sovereignty in those waters, two US officials said Monday. The officials say the White House approved the movement by the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, around the Spratly Islands archipelago, a disputed group of hundreds of reefs, islets, atolls, and islands in the South China Sea. The move is expected to take place within a day or so. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter in advance of the Lassen's movement. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment.
The Obama administration has long said it will exercise a right to freedom of navigation in any international waters, including in the South China Sea. The point of sailing a US ship within 12 nautical miles of any of the artificial islands created by China would be to demonstrate the US assertion that they are not sovereign Chinese territory. "Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception," Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Oct. 13. China's assertive behavior in the South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the US, even as President Obama and China's President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas, such as climate change.