BEIJING (AP) — Beijing expressed “serious concern” Thursday about a reported U.S. plan to challenge China’s South China Sea territorial claims by sailing a Navy ship near one of its newly built artificial islands.
The U.S. newspaper Navy Times reported on Wednesday that the Navy may soon receive approval for the mission to sail inside the 12-nautical mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding one of the man-made structures.
That would drive home Washington’s stance that the artificial islands do not constitute sovereign territory and build a legal case under international law for the U.S. position, the newspaper said.
Five other governments also claim the region in part or in total. The U.S. doesn’t take a formal position on sovereignty but insists on freedom of navigation in the vital sea lanes and airspace above.
Asked about the report at a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China has long made clear its position on the South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, along with its islands, reefs and atolls.
“I have not noticed the latest report you have mentioned. However, having heard what you said, we express serious concern about it,” Hua said.
China and the U.S. have discussed the issue on numerous occasions, including during President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington last month, Hua said.
“We hope the U.S. can look upon the current situation of the South China Sea from an objective and fair perspective and play a constructive role together with China in keeping the peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Hua said.
The Navy Times report said rumors have been circulating since May about plans to send a ship through China’s claimed territorial waters. It cited three Pentagon officials speaking on background as saying that Navy officials now believe “approval of the mission is imminent.”
It’s not clear how China might respond to such an action, although Beijing issued a formal protest over an incident in May in which a Chinese navy dispatcher demanded eight times that a U.S. Navy P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft leave the area as it flew over Fiery Cross Reef, where China has conducted extensive reclamation work.
The U.S. crew responded that they were flying through international airspace.
The U.S. and its allies, including the Philippines, have repeatedly called on China to stop the massive island construction, saying it has increased tensions in an increasingly militarized area and threatened regional stability. They say the project, which includes the construction of buildings, ports and airstrips, violates a 2002 regional pact signed by Beijing which urges rival claimants not to undertake new construction or take any step that would worsen tensions.
Speaking in July, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Scott Swift said Washington does not recognize any of the territorial claims and its position won’t change even if disputed areas are reinforced by construction work.
“We recognize those claims as being contested and the contested nature of those claims is unchanged despite the reclamation efforts of any country, any country, not just China,” Swift said.