WASHINGTON • The US Navy is unlikely to carry out another patrol within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea this year as officials had initially suggested, three US defence officials have said.
Naval commanders had hoped to carry out another "freedom of navigation" exercise in the region as early as this month as part of a plan to regularly send vessels into the area and exercise what the US views as its rights under international law, officials previously said.
But the Obama administration, which is weighing the risks of raising tensions with Beijing at a time when the United States is focused on the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has not approved the next such patrol, officials who asked not to be named said on Monday.
One official said the next US Navy sail-by was likely to come next month, in what would be the second direct challenge to the territorial limits China effectively claims around seven artificial islands in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
The navy conducted a similar exercise in October to underscore the US position that the crucial sea lane should be treated as international waters.
China claims most of the South China Sea, while Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
The US Pacific Fleet Commander on Monday warned of a possible arms race in the South China Sea which could engulf the region, as nations become increasingly tempted to use military force to settle territorial spats instead of international law.
Commander Admiral Scott Swift urged nations like China to seek arbitration to settle maritime disputes, in a speech in Hawaii, according to a copy seen by Reuters.
Asked about his comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: "Certain countries are exaggerating tensions in the South China Sea region, which is, in reality, to create confusion and meddle in the South China Sea. China is resolutely opposed to this."
China's Defence Ministry said certain countries were conducting "a big show of force" in the South China Sea.