BEIJING • The United States has been briefing its allies in Asia on plans for naval patrols near artificial islands built by China in the disputed South China Sea, a move that could escalate tensions with Beijing after President Xi Jinping's recent visit to Washington, American and Asian officials said yesterday.
The "freedom of navigation" patrols, which would come within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the islands, are intended to challenge China's efforts to claim large parts of the strategic waterway by enlarging rocks and submerged reefs into islands big enough for military airstrips, radar equipment and lodging for soldiers, the officials said.
Although Beijing claims much of the South China Sea as sovereign territory, the 12-mile zone around the new islands is particularly delicate because international law says such artificial islands do not have sovereign rights up to the 12-mile limit.
The US has refrained from venturing that close to Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea since at least 2012. In May, a US Navy surveillance plane flew near three of China's five artificial islands but not within their 12-mile territorial zones. Chinese navy radio operators warned the Americans to leave the area.
Officials in the Philippines said they had been told of the planned patrols in the past several days, and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, chairman of the national defence and security committee, on Monday welcomed the decision.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also expressed support for the US decision to patrol the disputed area.
"It is important for the international community to safeguard freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. This is of paramount concern to all countries," the department said
US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry were scheduled to discuss the patrols with their counterparts from Australia on Monday and yesterday in Boston.
The head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, who was earlier asked by the White House for options on how to respond to the Chinese actions in the South China Sea, was also due to attend the meetings.
The senior adviser on China at the National Security Council, Mr Daniel Kritenbrink, told a gathering of US analysts in Washington that the White House had decided to proceed with the patrols, according to a participant who requested anonymity.
Mr Kritenbrink did not specify when the patrols would take place, but he suggested they had been delayed so as not to disrupt Mr Xi's visit, the participant said.
The Obama administration and Washington's allies in Asia have debated at length on how best to respond to Beijing's moves in the South China Sea. Some have called for patrols to push back against Beijing, while others fear that the Chinese might use the patrols as justification for a further military build-up.
China has indicated that it will respond to US warships entering the 12-mile territorial waters around the artificial islands.
"There is no way for us to condone infringement of China's territorial sea and airspace by any country under the pretext of maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight," China's Foreign Ministry said last Friday.
China is "severely concerned" about reports that the US is planning patrols around the artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, the ministry's spokesman Hua Chunying said.
NEW YORK TIMES