A top U.S. Navy official says it should not be considered provocative that the U.S. is considering sending warships around artificial islands that China claims as its territory.
Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. chief of naval operations, suggested Thursday that such a "freedom of navigation" operation would be consistent with international law.
"I don't see how this can be interpreted as provocative or anything. They are just steaming in international waters," Richardson told reporters in Tokyo. "So I think from our standpoint, we would see these as part of our normal business as a global navy," said Richardson.
Recent reports suggest the U.S. military could within week’s sail warships inside the 22-kilometer zones of the artificial islands Beijing says are a legitimate extension of its territory.
China has been aggressively building up the islands, and in some cases installing military facilities on them in an effort to bolster its claims to the areas, which are also claimed by several other nations.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who has called on Beijing to stop the construction, this week insisted the U.S. will "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," noting that the South China Sea is not an exception to that policy.
China's Foreign Ministry has warned against engaging in "provocative behavior" in the South China Sea, and vowed it will "never allow any country to violate" its territorial waters or airspace.
The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, whose opinions often reflect government opinion, said in an editorial China "absolutely must not permit the U.S. side's warships and planes to behave unscrupulously near islands and reefs claimed by China.
"China's naval and air capacities must prepare, watch for U.S. military provocations and respond accordingly with countermeasures," the editorial added.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea, a resource-rich area through which $5 trillion worth of goods move across each year.
The U.S. says it does not take a position on the territorial disputes, but has condemned what it sees as China's increasingly aggressive behavior toward its neighbors in the area.
Washington has also developed closer military ties with many Asian countries, including some that have competing territorial claims with China.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.