No more US patrols in the South China Sea

15 December 2015
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According to the news agency Reuters, 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.

Naval commanders had hoped to carry out another “freedom of navigation” exercise in the region as early as December as part of a plan to regularly send vessels into the area and exercise what the United States views as its rights under international law, officials have 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 Islamic State, has not approved the next such patrol, said three US defence officials, who asked not to be named.

One official said the next US Navy sail-by was likely to come in January, 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.

Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban on Monday declined to comment on future plans for Navy operations. “As Secretary (of Defence Ash) Carter has stated, the United States will fly, sail or operate anywhere international law allows,” he told Reuters.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.

While the US Navy is expected to keep its technological edge in Asia for decades, China’s potential trump card is sheer weight of numbers, with dozens of naval and coast guard vessels routinely deployed in the South China Sea, security experts say.

President Barack Obama last month demanded that China halt land reclamation work that is turning seven reefs into artificial islands, including some where China is building airfields and other facilities.

China’s navy has carried out more exercises in the South China Sea in recent days, its defence ministry said on Sunday.

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