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By Kris Osborn

A U.S. Navy destroyer has sailed within 12 miles of artificial island areas claimed by China in the South China Sea in a deliberate effort to demonstrate international freedom of the seas and challenge China’s territorial claims.

Defense officials told Scout Warrior that Chinese vessels “shadowed” the USS Lassen as it transited through the area. 

The U.S. routinely operates in the area and this kind of shadowing is not unusual, officials said. However, this is the first time since China began its artificial island building that the U.S. has formally challenged or sought to undermine China’s claim to sovereignty extending out 12 miles from the man-made or artificial island structures.

A group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., sent a letter to President Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asking that the U.S. formally challenge China's claims and sail within the 12-mile boundary of the artificial island structures. 

According to and AFP wire service news report, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said the U.S. “illegally entered waters near the islands” without receiving permission from the Chinese government.

Beijing "resolutely opposes any country using freedom of navigation and overflight as a pretext for harming China's national sovereignty and security interests," his statement continues, adding China would "staunchly defend its territorial sovereignty." 

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Nevertheless, it remains to be seen if this incident will escalate tensions in the area, and U.S. officials say Navy ships will continue to sail through these areas and operate these kinds of patrols.

According to a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty supported by but not yet formally joined by the U.S., 12-miles off the coast of a given territory is considered to be sovereign waters owned by the respective country.

The area is question is a group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.  The small islands in the area, some of which are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region.

Pentagon officials have widely criticized an ongoing Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 2,000 acres to island territories claimed by China.

The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.

However, the Law of the Sea Convention does not recognize artificial or man-made structures and legitimate island territories to be claimed. Therefore, the U.S and its Pacific allies do not support or agree with China’s aggressive territorial claims.  In fact, citing the definition of islands articulated in the Law of the Sea Convention, Pentagon officials do not recognize the artificial structures as islands – but instead refer to the effort as “land reclamation.”

Under the U.N. Law of the Sea convention, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide." Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."