U.S. officials could soon send a Navy ship steaming by a chain of man-made islands that China has built in the South China Sea, Pentagon officials said, potentially exacerbating tensions in an area in which Beijing is expanding its presence.

China set up a territorial limit around the islands, effectively claiming international waters as their own. Washington does not recognize those claims, prompting the Navy to develop plans to send at least one ship within 12 nautical miles of the islands, a defense official said.

[U.S. Navy releases video of South China Sea aerial surveillance]

The Navy sending ships through the disputed areas would require approval from the White House, and underscore that the United States will not let China limit freedom of navigation at sea, the official added. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so.

Asked about the plan, a spokesman for the Navy, Cmdr. William Marks, said he could not discuss future operations. But he said that the Navy “will continue to operate in international waters in the South China Sea in accordance with international rules of navigation — and do so at a time of our choosing.”


This satellite image shows significant construction underway at Fiery Cross Reef, where China is building airstrips and expanding a man-made island. (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Digital Globe via Reuters)

The issue has received increasing attention this week as comments from U.S. and Chinese officials make it clear that the two countries remain at odds about the future of the South China Sea.

Adm. Scott Swift, head of the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during a speech in Australia on Tuesday that the United States will defend freedom of movement in international waters through “routine presence, exercises with allies and partners, and freedom-of-navigation operations.”

[China appears to be building another airstrip in the South China Sea]

A spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, said afterward that Beijing is very concerned about that. U.S. and Chinese officials had in-depth exchanges on the issue when President Obama visited recently, and Washington is very clear about China’s views.

“We hope that the U.S. can adopt an objective viewpoint and altogether we can safeguard the peace and security of the South China Sea and the U.S. can play a constructive role in this,” she said.

A Pentagon spokesman, Cmdr. Bill Urban, said the United States is present and active in the East China Sea and South China Sea on a daily basis. Washington does not take a position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but does not recognize “excessive maritime claims” that exceed what is authorized under international law, he said.

“The United States does, however, have a national interests in upholding principles of freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea and around the world,” Urban said.

[Graphic: China’s rapid island-building strategy in the South China Sea continues]

Navy Times reported on Wednesday that getting Obama’s approval to send U.S. ships into the disputed areas is imminent, citing anonymous defense officials. Defense officials interviewed by The Washington Post questioned whether that is a stretch, but said the Navy is ready to do so if Obama approves the mission.

Defense officials told The Post that the plan could be carried out by a destroyer or a cruiser, both of which carry helicopters and a variety of weapons, or a more lightly armed littoral combat ship (LCS). The Navy would not anticipate a skirmish with the Chinese as a result, the officials said.

“The objective to this would be to demonstrate that this is international water,” one official said. “Whether that is a destroyer loaded out with missiles or an LCS with less weapons, the point wouldn’t be about which weapons the Navy is sending.”

Emily Rauhala contributed to this report.