Asia Pacific

Japan-based U.S. carrier visits Hong Kong as air force flies B-52 bombers over South China Sea

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy’s Japan-based aircraft carrier arrived in Hong Kong on Wednesday, the military said in a statement, a day after the air force flew two B-52 bombers near disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The port call came 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.

The Reagan, which is homeported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, was accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement.

While in port, the U.S. Navy said sailors will have the chance to interact with local citizens through sporting competitions, community relations projects, and tours. More than 4,400 men and women are usually aboard the carrier.

“Hong Kong is always an incredible port visit and I’m glad that the officers and Sailors of Carrier Strike Group 5 will have the chance to enjoy the culture, vitality and diversity of this great city,” said Rear Adm. Karl O. Thomas, commander of Carrier Strike Group 5. “The abundant growth and prosperity that surrounds us in Hong Kong is what the United States Seventh Fleet seeks to preserve for all nations in this important region.”

U.S. Navy vessels have visited Hong Kong for decades, and the Reagan last visited the city in October 2017.

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.

This week’s 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.

Ahead of that meeting, tensions between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea continued to be on display.

The U.S. Pacific Air Forces said that two Guam-based bombers had conducted training “in the vicinity of the South China Sea” on Tuesday.

The United States routinely flies bombers in the area as part of its “Continuous Bomber Presence” missions and what it says is its “long-standing commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

This has become a particularly sensitive issue for Beijing, which has been angered by the presence of U.S. military forces in the skies and waters near its man-made islands in the South China Sea, some of which have been built up into garrisons with radar installations and military-grade runways.

It has even deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) to some of the islets, according to the U.S.

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.

Beijing claims 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.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command head Adm. Phil Davidson told a security conference in Halifax, Canada, last week that China has transformed “what was a ‘great wall of sand’ just three years ago [into] a ‘great wall of SAMs.'”

China’s emplacement of those missiles gives Beijing “the potential to exert national control over international waters and airspace through which over three trillion dollars in goods travel every year,” Davidson said.

China has repeatedly said that it has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and its adjacent waters,” but Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines also have overlapping claims in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year and where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.

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.