In a move likely to stoke the ire of Beijing, the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 1, which includes the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, began what the navy called “routine operations” in the contested South China Sea on Saturday.
Beijing had warned Washington last week not to challenge its sovereignty in the strategic waterway amid reports that the U.S. Navy was gearing up to sail more warships near China’s man-made islands in the contested waters.
China claims most of the strategic waters, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratly chain, with some boasting military-grade airfields and anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to “militarize” the islands.
While in the Western Pacific, the Vinson, 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 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 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 Chinese vessels 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.
The U.S. has conducted the operations in attempt to counter what Washington sees as Beijing’s efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the waters and challenge its “excessive maritime claims” there.
Asked about plans to sail warships from the Vinson carrier group near the man-made Chinese-held islands, U.S. Pacific Command said in an email that it does not discuss the operational schedules of its vessels.
“The U.S. Navy has operated routinely and lawfully in the Western-Pacific, to include the South China Sea for decades and will continue to do so,” U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight told The Japan Times.
Ahead of their operations in the South China Sea, ships and aircraft from the strike group conducted training off Hawaii and Guam “to maintain and improve their readiness and develop cohesion as a strike group,” the navy said in a statement, adding that the group had recently wrapped up operations in the Philippine Sea.
“The training completed over the past few weeks has really brought the team together and improved our effectiveness and readiness as a strike group,” strike group commander Rear Adm. James Kilby said. “We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”
According to the navy statement, the Vinson was last sent to the Western Pacific in 2015, when it held bilateral exercises with Malaysia’s navy and air force in the South China Sea. It first operated in the South China Sea in 1983 and has, in total, operated there during 16 previous deployments over its 35 year history, the statement added.
Nick Bisley, a professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Australia, said sending the Vinson group into the waters was likely a “gentle ramp up” from what the U.S. Pacific Command “has been wanting to do for a while.”
Bisley said he expected Washington to gauge the Chinese response and then conduct a more beefed up freedom of navigation operation.
China is “trying to keep things from roiling at present but if they feel embarrassed,” they will ramp up, he added.
Having the Vinson in the waterway, part of operations planned before U.S. President Donald Trump took office, could give the new leader a fresh card to play as he faces off with Beijing over a range of issues, including not only the South China Sea but North Korea’s nuclear program, as well.
On Feb. 12, the North conducted the test-firing of a new type of solid-fuel, intermediate-range ballistic missile, raising concerns that it is making progress in its quest to field an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the continental U.S.
In a bid to counter provocations from the North, South Korean defense officials have reportedly said the U.S. will send key strategic assets — including the Vinson — to the South for joint military exercises scheduled for next month.
The U.S. dispatched the USS John C. Stennis for last year’s annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises. Seoul has touted this year’s drills as the “biggest ever.” They are likely to anger Pyongyang, which regards them as preparations for war on the Korean Peninsula.
“I expect North Korea to rhetorically condemn U.S. and ROK military exercises, but be careful to not engage in a provocation that could escalate out of control,” Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, using the acronym for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.