The Financial Times newspaper cited a senior U.S. official as saying U.S. ships would sail within 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago, within the next two weeks.

The Navy Times quoted U.S. officials as saying the action could take place "within days," but awaited final approval from the Obama administration.

A U.S. defense official declined to confirm that any decision had been made, but referred to remarks in congressional testimony last month by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear, that "all options are on the table."

"We are looking at this," the official said, on condition of anonymity.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he was aware of the media reports but did not have any comment on future policy decisions.

Earnest told a regular news briefing that any such move "should not provoke significant reaction from the Chinese."

"This is something the United States has done on several other occasions because the president is committed to the principle of freedom of navigation” in the East Vietnam Sea, Earnest said.

Shear, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month there had been no U.S. patrols within 12 miles of the Chinese-claimed islands since 2012.

In May, the Chinese navy issued eight warnings to the crew of a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft when they conducted flights near China's artificial islands, according to CNN, which was aboard the U.S. aircraft.

China claims most of the East Vietnam Sea, where the Truong Sa archipelago are located and $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

China watching closely

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing on Thursday that China was paying attention to the reports of impending U.S. naval action, and that it and the United States have maintained "extremely thorough communication" on the East Vietnam Sea issue.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last month, in reference to China's East Vietnam Sea claims, that the United States would "fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world."

U.S. President Barack Obama said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping he had "significant concerns" about the islands when Xi made his first state visit to Washington late in September.

Xi said at the time China had no intention to militarize the islands, but Washington analysts and U.S. officials say China has already begun creating military facilities, and the only question is how much military hardware it will install.

Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has said China's development of the islands, including the building of runways suitable for military use, was of "great concern" and a threat to the region.

In congressional testimony on Sept. 17, Harris said the United States should challenge China's claim to territory in the East Vietnam Sea by patrolling close to the artificial islands and that the U.S. was considering going within 12 miles of them.

Tuoi Tre News with Reuters - October 9, 2015

China completes construction of lighthouses in disputed East Vietnam Sea

China has completed the construction of two lighthouses in the disputed East Vietnam Sea, the official Xinhua news agency reported, as tensions in the region mount over Beijing's maritime ambitions.

A completion ceremony was held for the lighthouses on Cuateron Reef and Johnson South Reef in the Vietnam's Truong Sa (Spratly) islands, Xinhua said late on Friday. The United States and the Philippines have opposed the construction.

China claims most of the energy-rich East Vietnam Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.

China said on Friday it would not stand for violations of its territorial waters in the name of freedom of navigation, as the United States considers sailing warships to waters inside the 12-nautical-mile zones around islands it has built in Vietnam's Truong Sa archipelago.

Washington has signalled it does not recognise Beijing's sovereignty over the several islands China has built on reefs in Vietnam's Truong Sa archipelago and says the U.S. navy will continue to operate wherever international law allows.

The issue is central to increasingly tense relations between the United States and China, the world's two largest economies.

Beijing has said construction in the region is to help maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, environmental protection and navigational security. It has also said it will continue to build other installations to better serve countries in the region and vessels navigating those waters.

Tuoi Tre News with Reuters - October 10, 2015