September 6, 2015 1:30 am JST
South China Sea

US warships might make a pass by China's man-made islets

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei staff writer

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government is considering whether to send military ships and planes close to China's man-made islands in the South China Sea. The government is leaning that way in the wake of Chinese navy vessels' recent passage through U.S. territorial waters off Alaska.

     Washington is also considering possible sanctions against China in response to Chinese cyberattacks on the U.S.

     The developments are ratcheting up tension between Washington and Beijing ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping's planned U.S. visit later this month.

     The U.S. Defense Department said Friday that five Chinese navy vessels that had been confirmed operating in the Bering Sea breached U.S. territorial waters when they passed near the Aleutian Islands.

     Under international law, waters within 12 nautical miles (about 22km) of a coast are defined as that country's territorial waters. Foreign vessels are allowed "innocent passage" through other countries' territorial waters as long as they do not launch any military action.

     U.S. officials said Chinese navy ships had passed closer than 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coastline, adding they had complied with the principle of innocent passage.

     The incident came only days ago during U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Alaska, an indication that China is trying to pressure the U.S.

Political concerns

Still, the U.S. government downplayed the act, characterizing it as legal transit in compliance with international law. However, this is thought to be the result of domestic politics in the U.S.

     Although the U.S. presidential election does not take place until November 2016, Republican candidates have already been dialing up their rhetoric. Some are now calling on the White House to cancel the state guest status Xi is to have during his visit.

     The Obama administration is worried that an overreaction to the Chinese vessel's passage could be interpreted as the president conceding his China policy has failed.

     Moreover, the U.S. government appears intent to use the incident. It is quite uncommon for the Defense Department to immediately give details of Chinese vessel movements. Many believe that publicizing these details is part of a strategy in which U.S. ships and airplanes will be sent to the waters within 12 nautical miles of China's man-made islands in the South China Sea.

     It is thought that China would find it difficult to lodge a protest.

     The U.S. maintains that China's territorial claims around the artificial islets are invalid. Officials of the Defense Department and U.S. armed forces have been saying the Obama administration should send U.S. vessels and aircraft as soon as possible, adding that the waters directly around these islets remain part of the open seas.

     Some U.S. government officials are raising alarms that the U.S.'s silence on China's increasing assertiveness, including the cyberattacks, could fuel further Republican criticism of the White House.

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