Last month, a number of Pentagon officials floated the idea of sending naval ships into the South China Sea. To protest Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, the US Navy said it would sail within the 12-mile territorial limit of those features.
"The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a news conference last month.
On Monday, a US defense official confirmed to Reuters that such a plan will, in fact, take place – and soon. Within the next 24 hours, the USS Lassen destroyer will be sent to patrol Chinese territorial waters near the islands, and could also patrol artificial islands built by other nations.
"This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event," the official said. "It's not something that's unique to China."
According to the official, the ship will likely be accompanied by a P-8A, the Pentagon’s most advanced spy plane, which has already been operating in the region to monitor Beijing’s construction progress.
China has repeatedly warned the US about aggressive action. Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry urged "related parties not to take any provocative actions, and genuinely take a responsible stance on regional peace and stability."
"We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a news briefing.
With nearly $5 trillion in trade passing through its waters annually, the South China Sea is a highly contested region. While China claims most of the sea, there are overlapping claims from Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
While the United States lays no claim in the region, it has criticized China’s land reclamation projects as a breach of international law.
"There are billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. "Ensuring the free flow of commerce…is critical to the global economy."
Beijing maintains that it has every right to build within its own territory, and that the islands will be used primarily for humanitarian purposes.
This isn’t the first time the US has sought to influence the region through naval patrols. Both Vietnam and the Philippines have also built islands atop reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the past, and these too resulted in aggressive patrols by the US Navy.