The U.S. Navy hasn't sailed or flown near China's manmade islands in the South China Sea since 2012, an official said.
The last time the sea service conducted a freedom of navigation operation within a dozen nautical miles of China's artificial islands in the region was three years ago, according to David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon.
The acknowledgment came Thursday during sharp questioning from Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a hearing of the panel.
"I believe the last time we conducted a freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was April of this year," Shear said.
"Within the 12-mile limit?" McCain said, referring to the distance claimed by the Chinese as their territorial waters in the area. "Come on, Mr. Secretary, I'm very interested in the 12-mile limit because if you respect the 12-mile limit, then that's de facto sovereignty agreed to tacitly to the Chinese. Now, have we or have we not operated within the 12-mile limit in recent years?"
Shear replied, "I believe the last time we conducted a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of one of those features was 2012."
McCain, who had cited a recent news article that quoted a Chinese admiral as saying the South China Sea "belongs to China," said U.S. naval ships should peacefully sail within that demarcation to send a message to China, especially given the country's rapid territorial expansion there.
"The best sign of respecting freedom of the seas is not to de facto recognize a 12-mile limit, and the best way you can make sure that that is not recognized is to sail your ships in international waters -- which it clearly is, these are artificial islands -- and pass right on by," he said. "That puts the lie to the admiral who said the South China Sea belong to China. It does not belong to China. It belongs to the international waterways."
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in May conducted patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sailed close behind, according to information released by the Defense Department at the time.
Shear testified alongside Navy Adm. Harry B. Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, whose area of operation includes the disputed territory.
"I agree that the South China Sea is no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's," Harris said.
"I think that we must exercise our freedom of navigation throughout the region and part of our responsibility as Pacific Command commander is to give options to the president and the secretary," he added, referring to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. "And those options are being considered and will execute as directed by the president and the secretary."
Chinese navy ships this month were spotted off the coast of Alaska for the first time. The discovery came the same week China held a massive military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender during World War II -- and highlights its ambition to become a global military power.
A Pentagon official declined to identify the names of the vessels but said they included three combatant ships, one amphibious landing vessel and one replenishment ship. The ships were sailing in international waters in the Bering Sea and at one point reportedly came within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coast.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@military.com.