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, officials have said.

But the Obama administration, which is weighing the risks of raising tensions with Beijing at a time when the United States is foccused 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.  

President Barack Obama last month demanded that China halt land reclamation work that is turning seven reefs into artificial islands, including some where China is building airfields and other facilities.

China's navy has carried out more exercises in the South China Sea in recent days, its defence ministry said on Sunday.

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