Asia Pacific

Japan-based carrier USS Ronald Reagan set to make port call in Hong Kong amid U.S.-China tensions

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy’s Kanagawa-based aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is due to make a port call in Hong Kong on Wednesday, a notice posted to the website of the city’s maritime authority said, nearly two months after China denied a request by another U.S. warship to visit the city amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade and the South China Sea.

A note posted to the website of the Marine Department of Hong Kong said that the visit by the Reagan carrier strike group, which includes the warships USS Benfold, USS Curtis Wilbur and the USS Chancellorsville, had been approved and that the vessels would arrive between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday.

The U.S. Navy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The visit’s approval by Chinese authorities comes after the denial in September of a port call by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, which had been scheduled to visit the former British colony in October.

In 2016, China also denied a request for a U.S. carrier strike group led by the USS John C. Stennis to visit Hong Kong during heightened tensions over the South China Sea.

The decision to allow the port call is likely to be seen as a move to tamp down tensions ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Chinese Leader Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 meeting of the world’s developed economies in Buenos Aires from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1.

That meeting will come a month before U.S. tariffs on imports are set to balloon to 25 percent on Jan. 1.

Differences between the world’s two biggest economies were on full display at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit over the weekend. Sparks between the two reportedly resulted in the group’s failure to agree on a joint communique for the first time in the summit’s history.

Also Tuesday, a Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account dedicated to monitoring military air movements, shared the apparent flight path of two Guam-based U.S. B-52 bombers, a path that would take them through the Luzon Strait and into the South China Sea. Observers had speculated that the bombers could train with one or both of the carriers during the mission.

Last week, the Reagan and Stennis strike groups conducted “coordinated, routine surface and air operations” in the Philippine Sea, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement. The Reagan also linked up with the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s destroyer Fuyuzuki last week for joint drills in waters off Japanese territory as the carrier steamed toward Hong Kong.

“Bringing two carrier strike groups together provides unparalleled naval combat power, tremendous operational flexibility and reach across the region,” 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Phil Sawyer said in a statement. “It shows our forces at their best, operating confidently at sea, and demonstrates that the U.S. Navy will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows.”

The 7th Fleet touted recent “dual and triple carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific, including waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula, Sea of Japan, South China Sea, East China Sea and Philippine Sea,” which the it said had taken place “for nearly two decades.”

Those exercises — especially ones in recent years in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing has constructed a series of military outposts — have angered China, which claims much of the strategic waterway.

Beijing says its facilities in the waters are for defensive purposes, but some observers say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea.

Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate and through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

In July 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a landmark ruling that Beijing’s expansive “nine-dash line” claim to the South China Sea had no legal basis. China has rejected the international tribunal’s ruling.