WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy plans to sail a guided missile destroyer near disputed islands China has built up in the South China Sea, a Defense official confirmed on Monday.
The USS Lassen is steaming toward the man-made islands, which China has constructed by pouring sand onto coral reefs, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the movement of a ship. It is possible the Lassen may not pass within 12 nautical miles of the islands, which is the territorial limit of the islands.
Last week, in another show of force in the region, dozens of U.S. and Japanese warships, including aircraft carriers, conducted a highly publicized military exercise. Top U.S. Navy officials have signaled for weeks their intention to sail near the islands to uphold the rules of international navigation.
China has built up reefs in the Spratly Islands to assert claims of sovereignty that would give them control of resources and fishing rights in the South China Sea. U.S. officials maintain they are international waters and open to navigation. Moreover, even if the islands were Chinese territory, the U.S. Navy could pass within 12 miles under the rule of "innocent passage," which allows ships to sail if they are not conducting military maneuvers.