USS Lassen to challenge China's Spratly Islands claim 'within hours'
WASHINGTON — The Navy destroyer USS Lassen will challenge China’s 12-mile sea claims around a controversial South China Sea island within hours, a U.S. defense official confirmed Monday.
The Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, is already underway, conducting exercises in the South China Sea. It will transit within 12 miles of a manmade island that China has rapidly built up among a chain of elevated coral reefs, islands and land formations known as the Spratly Islands.
That buildup, which includes an airstrip and appears to be for military purposes, has increased tensions between China and many of the United States’ Pacific allies.
Malaysia Armed Forces chief Zulkefli Mohd Zin last week heavily criticized the Chinese buildup, calling it "unwarranted provocation."
The Lassen will have overhead watch from a U.S. maritime patrol craft, a U.S. defense official said on background because he was not authorized to discuss the movement. The same official said the movement would take place “within hours.”
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has regularly challenged the Chinese territorial claim of the islands and the waters surrounding it. Carter has said the United States “will fly, sail, and operate wherever the international law permits, and we will do that at the times and places of our choosing, and there’s no exception to that.”
According to a maritime report by the Department of Defense, there are more than 200 Spratly land features, though that figure varies based on how geographers count them. Vietnam occupies 48 of the Spratly Islands, Taiwan occupies one, the Philippines occupies eight, Malaysia occupies five and China occupies eight, according to the report.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim all of the Spratly land features.
Carter has said the United States is not taking a position on which nations have sovereignty over the islands. Every nation can claim up to 12 nautical miles from its coast as sovereign territory. But it’s China’s rapid buildup of an airstrip on the Fiery Cross Reef that has generated the most concern.
The Lassen’s home port is Yokosuka, Japan, and last week made a port stop in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia after spending the previous four weeks conducting maritime patrols throughout the South China Sea.
On the first half of their patrol, the Lassen reported “numerous interactions occurred while at sea with foreign vessels, including the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Jiangkai-class frigates,” according to a Navy news release. “Lassen used the codes for unplanned encounters at sea and standard bridge-to-bridge communication to ensure safe and professional navigation.”