The US Navy is unlikely to carry out another patrol within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea this year as officials had initially suggested, three defense officials said on Monday.

Navy sailors participate in an exercise on the deck of the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Lassen with an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter in the South China Sea in this file photo

Naval commanders had hoped to carry out another “freedom of navigation” exercise in the region as early as December as part of a plan to regularly send vessels into the area and exercise what the United States views as its rights under international law.

But the Obama administration, which is weighing the risks of raising tensions with Beijing at a time when the United States is focused on the fight against Islamic State, has not approved the next such patrol, said the officials, who asked not to be named.

One official said the next US Navy sail-by was likely to come in January, in what would be the second direct challenge to the territorial limits China effectively claims around seven artificial islands in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

The Navy conducted a similar exercise in October to underscore the U.S. position that the crucial sea lane should be treated as international waters. Read More

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