WASHINGTON • The United States and its Pacific ally Australia have warned China that they remain committed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
China is involved in maritime territorial disputes with several of its South-east Asian neighbours and is trying to bolster its claim by building artificial islands.
According to senior US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, Washington is drawing up a plan to sail by these islands in the coming days or weeks.
The warship or ships would pass within the 12 nautical mile territorial limit China claims around the structures to demonstrate that US commanders do not recognise it.
Meanwhile, after an annual two-day meeting, the US and Australian defence and foreign ministers said they do not have a view on the legal arguments of the dispute.
NOT TAKING SIDES
We do not take sides on the various territorial claims, but we urge all parties to not act unilaterally, to not act in a way that would escalate tensions.
AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER JULIE BISHOP
But they warned that they will continue to support freedom of navigation and send ships and planes through what they regard as international waters in the region.
US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter joined Secretary of State John Kerry and their Australian counterparts Marise Payne and Julie Bishop in Boston.
"Australia and America both want to sustain and renew an Asia-Pacific regional security architecture where everyone rises and everyone prospers," Mr Carter said.
"But, make no mistake," he warned, "the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.
"And the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception."
He said this was not just a US commitment, but shared by its major regional allies Japan, the Philippines, India and Vietnam.
Ms Bishop, Australia's Foreign Minister, said Washington and Canberra were "on the same page" over the dispute. "We do not take sides on the various territorial claims, but we urge all parties to not act unilaterally, to not act in a way that would escalate tensions."
She also welcomed a statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping last month that said China did not intend to militarise the islands. She said she hoped Beijing would stick to the commitment.
In Beijing, China's foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said yesterday that Beijing had not militarised the South China Sea, but charged that certain countries, which keep flexing their muscles, should stop hyping up the issue.
On Saturday, China vowed to continue building on the disputed reefs and said construction had finished on two lighthouses in areas claimed by smaller rivals.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - members of Asean - claim parts of the sea. Taiwan is a sixth claimant.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS