The U.S. intends to send a “freedom of navigation” fleet just 12 nautical miles from China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea within 24 hours.
After endless delays since the White House-approved operations plan was first leaked about a week and a half ago, CNN’s chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto received word from a defense official that execution of the plan is imminent. The fleet will consist of the destroyer USS Lassen and also probably include a P-8A surveillance plane.
Congress has brought attention to the Obama administration’s inaction on this issue for months. Back in April, lawmakers wrote to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, complaining about the lack of a comprehensive strategy for protecting U.S. and allied interests in the region. (RELATED: Congress Raises Alarm As Obama Ignores Chinese Expansion In South China Sea)
Some experts maintain that the plan is unlikely to be effective unless conducted routinely, which would of course raise already high tensions between China and the United States. Regular freedom of navigation operations may prompt the Chinese to send a fleet to block or surround U.S. ships.
“This cannot be a one-off,” Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told Reuters. “The U.S. navy will have to conduct these kinds of patrols on a regular basis to reinforce their message.”
Neither Japan nor Australia are expected to follow in the footsteps of the United States, though both countries share major concerns about maintaining access to trade routes. The shipping route accommodates around $5 trillion in global trade every year.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries are not permitted to set 12-nautical mile limits around artificial islands, though China has not made any formal declaration regarding that zone. In September, China sent its own ships within 12 miles of the Aleutian Islands near Alaska.
But even without that formal declaration, China already claims most of the South China Sea and has continued to build military infrastructure on the islands, even though Chinese officials promised Carter that they would halt construction.
In September, President Barack Obama said at a news conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping that “the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows.” Xi insisted that the artificial islands will not be made into military outposts.
The two leaders will meet again in a few weeks at a set of Asia-Pacific summits in late November.
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