The United States Navy has quietly been patrolling the waters around Chinese man-made islands in the South China Sea, the Navy Times reports. Three U.S. Navy ships–the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Stethem, USS Spruance, and USS Momsen–have been sailing around Chinese-claimed features in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, located 120 nautical miles west of Luzon, according to a U.S. defense official.
“We have been regularly patrolling within the 14 to 20 nautical mile range of these features,” the official said. As Diplomat readers are aware, China has been attempting to establish a de facto 12 nautical mile territorial sea around the man-made territorial features that it claims in the South China Sea. As a result, the U.S. Navy has been conducting a number of so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) with 12 nautical miles of some of the man-made islands in the disputed waters.
However, the three U.S. Navy destroyers have purportedly all stayed outside the 12 nautical mile zone and patrolled in international waters. There have been no reports of politically more sensitive FONOPs occurring since the U.S. Navy canceled a freedom of navigation operation scheduled for April (previous FONOPs took place in October 2015, in the Spratly Islands, and in January 2016, in the Paracels Islands.) A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific fleet said that the patrols are “part of the U.S. Navy’s “routine presence” in the South China Sea.
“Patrols by U.S. Navy destroyers like Spruance, Momsen, and Stethem — as well as the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group — are part of our regular and routine presence throughout the western Pacific. U.S. Navy forces have flown, sailed, and operated in this region for decades and will continue to do so,” he added.
It is not clear how many patrols the U.S. Navy conducted around Chinese man-made islands and the U.S. Pacific Fleet has refused to reveal additional details, citing operational security.
“We won’t discuss tactics, specific locations in the South China Sea or future operations anywhere in the region due to operational security,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson said. “All of these patrols are conducted in accordance with international law and all are consistent with routine Pacific Fleet presence throughout the western Pacific.”
Tensions in the South China Sea are expected to rise in the coming days given that a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague is expected on July 12. The Philippines has taken China to court over what Manila sees as an illegal occupation of features by China in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal.
China kicked off its own naval drill on July 5 in the disputed waters. As my colleague Ankit Panda pointed out, China has declared a no-sail zone that encompasses an area of approximately 106,000 square kilometers, including most of the Paracel Islands, while the military exercise is taking place. It will conclude on July 11, a day before the court ruling is expected.