Will the symbols of American and Chinese naval might meet in the waters of the disputed South China Sea soon? Probably not.
But the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet deployment of its USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group late last week to the Western Pacific has raised eyebrows in China, which itself wrapped up a much-heralded training mission there for its first carrier earlier this month.
Due to arrive sometime around the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, the American deployment — the first such mission since World War II — could give the unpredictable and outspoken leader another card to play as he faces off with China.
It could also be seen in Beijing as current U.S. President Barack Obama’s parting shot at the Asian powerhouse as he prepares to leave office.
In the Western Pacific, the Vinson, a Nimitz-class supercarrier, its escorts and its 7,500 sailors will be in the Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Prefecture-based 7th Fleet’s area of operations but will remain under the control of 3rd Fleet commander Vice Adm. Nora Tyson. The San Diego-based 3rd Fleet has traditionally confined its operations to the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean’s international dateline. But Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet, which groups the 3rd and 7th fleets, has sought to expand the role in the Pacific of the San Diego-based command.
In a November, a three-ship Pacific Surface Action Group commanded by the 3rd Fleet returned to the U.S. after operating primarily in and around the South China Sea, where they were tailed by the Chinese fleet as they surveilled China’s man-made islands. This deployment also saw one of those three ships, the Decatur, conduct the most recent “freedom of navigation” patrol by the U.S. in the disputed waters.
According to Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, the U.S. “has been thinking about forward deploying a second carrier to the Western Pacific for some time now, including the possibility of sending out another carrier alongside (the current one deployed) in Yokosuka.
“Last year’s Surface Action Group deployment was experimental but successful in the main objective, which is to bolster the U.S. Navy’s presence in the region by making 3rd Fleet ‘operational,’ ” Graham added.
Chinese state media has lashed out at the dispatch of the Vinson — which the U.S. Navy says will focus on “maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts” — as another means of containing Beijing.
In an editorial Sunday for the state-run Global Times newspaper, which is known for its nationalist bent, experts said sending the Vinson could also set the tone that the incoming Trump administration will take on the heated South China Sea issue.
“The move of USS Carl Vinson on the eve of the U.S. presidential transition reflects more of the will of the Obama administration and the U.S. military,” the paper quoted Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, as saying. “But it is also a reflection of some of Donald Trump’s ideas. After all, intervening in the South China Sea and isolating China are what Trump would like to see.”
Aside from the South China Sea issue, the dispatch was also likely a show of force amid North Korea’s continued nuclear saber-rattling. The country’s nuclear program and its quest to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the continental U.S. will be among the top foreign policy issues facing the incoming administration.
Leader Kim Jong Un announced in his New Year’s address that the reclusive country had reached the “final stages” of ICBM development, while on Sunday a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pyongyang reserves the right to conduct a test whenever it sees fit.
“North Korea is probably the immediate concern, but China also has a history of challenging incoming administrations on or over the water, and the UUV snatch has raised the stakes somewhat,” the Lowy Institute’s Graham said, referring to the snatching of a undersea U.S. Navy drone by the Chinese Navy last month.
The dispatch could also see China’s only aircraft carrier in the same waters as a U.S. carrier for the first time. On Dec. 25, China’s sole carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by three guided-missile destroyers and two frigates, cruised into the Western Pacific Ocean for the first time via the waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island.
But symbolism aside, a meeting by the two nations’ most imposing vessels may be of little consequence.
“Although the carriers might conceivably operate within the same area at sometime in the future, that’s not really so important,” said retired U.S. Marine Col. Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo. “Rather, the more important development is the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s constant shadowing of U.S. naval forces operating in the South China Sea in recent times. They are in effect ‘escorting’ U.S. naval ships and gradually establishing PLA a dominance of the South China Sea.”
The move by the 3rd Fleet could change that dynamic.
“Hopefully, the USS Vinson’s deployment indicates the U.S. will finally stand up for itself — and for its friends and partners in the region,” Newsham said.
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