WASHINGTON — American warships will continue to "regularly" sail within the 12-nautical mile limit of islands built by China in the South China Sea, a senior U.S. official said Thursday, despite protests from Beijing after the USS Lassen's passage near one of the man-made islets this week.
The comments came in the wake of a quickly-arranged video-conference call Thursday morning between Navy Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, and his Chinese counterpart. And they served as a warning that such sail-by operations would be somewhat routine, although it was unclear how frequent they would be.
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States "would reserve the right to carry out those kinds of operations in the future."
The video call between Richardson and People's Liberation Army's Navy Commander Adm. Wu Shengli was set up at China's request, apparently triggered by the U.S. decision to have the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sail within the limit of the newly created islands on Tuesday.
The U.S. does not recognize the man-made islands as sovereign territory.
A senior Navy official said that Wu requested the call and expressed concern and disagreement over the Lassen's movements, but said Richardson responded that the sail-by should not be seen as provocative.
The Navy official said Richardson also told Wu that the U.S. will continue to sail wherever international law allows. The conversation was described as calm and productive. And the Navy official said that while Richardson and Wu disagreed about the international passage issue, they agreed that they didn't want this matter to sidetrack other naval cooperation between the two nations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. A statement released by the Navy said that Richardson and Wu discussed pending port visits, senior leader meetings and "the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue." It added that both admirals agreed to speak again later this year.
The Chinese took no forceful action during the USS Lassen's sail-by on Tuesday, but on Thursday a Defense Ministry spokesman said China's military will take "all necessary" measures in response to any future U.S. Navy incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters around the islands.
Earnest said that no country, including China, should be trying to use their size or influence to try to resolve competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. He said the recent U.S. military operation was not a challenge to sovereignty claims.
"The reason the United States is interested here is that we're not making claims on those land features there but we certainly do have a financial interest and a broader strategic interest in ensuring that freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce continues unimpeded in the South China Sea," Earnest told a news conference.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and its islands, reefs and atolls as its sovereign territory, an assertion challenged by five other regional governments.
The U.S. takes no formal position on sovereignty, but insists on freedom of navigation and has urged China to cease its construction of new islands complete with buildings, harbors and airstrips.