(From Reuters)

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said ahead of a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Washington next week that America should challenge China‘s claim to territory in the South China Sea by patrolling close to artificial islands built by Beijing.

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., US Navy Commander, U.S. Pacific Command walks past a photograph showing an island that China is building on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, as the prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on maritime security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. CLIFF OWEN — AP Photo

Admiral Harry Harris told a Senate hearing on Thursday that China’s building of three airfields on the islands and their further militarization was of “great concern militarily” and posed a threat to all countries in the region.

Pressed by members the Senate Armed Services Committee on whether U.S. forces should challenge China by sailing within 12 nautical miles of the islands, Harris replied:

“I believe that we should exercise – be allowed to exercise, freedom of navigation and flight – maritime and flight – in the South China Sea against those islands that are not islands.”

Asked if this meant going within 12 miles, he answered, referring to the artificial islands: “Depending on the feature.” He added: “Conducting that kind of … freedom-of-navigation operation is one of the operations we’re considering.”

Committee chairman Senator John McCain criticized the Obama administration for failing to challenge China by sailing within 12 miles of the artificial islands, saying this “dangerous mistake” amounted to de facto recognition of Chinese claims.

Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear told the committee that such patrols had not been conducted since 2012, but were among an “array” of future U.S. options. Read more

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