The US Navy plans to conduct another passage near disputed islands in the South China Sea early this month, a source familiar with the plan said on Friday, the third in a series of challenges that have drawn sharp rebukes from China.
The exact timing of the exercise and which vessels would travel inside a 12 nautical mile (22.2km) limit around a disputed island was not immediately clear.
The US has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises in recent months, sailing near disputed islands to underscore its right to navigate the seas.
US Navy officials have said they plan to conduct more and increasingly complex exercises in the future.
The USS Stennis carrier strike group is operating in the South China Sea.
The next freedom of navigation exercise is unlikely to be conducted by a carrier like the Stennis, but rather by a smaller ship, the source said.
Experts predict the next US challenge to territorial claims by China in the South China Sea could occur near Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁), part of the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which Taiwan also claims.
Mischief Reef was submerged at high tide before China began a dredging project to turn it into an island in 2014.
Mischief Reef is now the site of one of three military-length airfields China has built on artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
US Navy ships regularly patrol the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion of world trade travels every year. China claims most of the area, while Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have rival claims.
In recent months, with tensions rising around China’s reclamation activities, US ships have been frequently and routinely shadowed by Chinese ships and regular communications with Chinese vessels have often been tense.
News of the planned exercise came a day after US President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at a nuclear summit in Washington.
During the meetings, Xi told Obama that China would not accept any behavior in the disguise of freedom of navigation that violates its sovereignty, sending a clear warning to the US.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) on Saturday told reporters that China opposed any such exercise.
“China consistently respects and supports the freedom of navigation and flyover that all countries enjoy in the South China Sea under international law, but resolutely opposes any country using so-called freedom of navigation as an excuse to damage China’s sovereignty, security and maritime rights,” Hong said.
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