Asia Pacific

Japan-based U.S. aircraft carrier in South China Sea ahead of key Chinese anniversary

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In a move likely to stoke anger in Beijing just days before it marks a key anniversary, the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is conducting operations in the disputed South China Sea, near China’s man-made islands, new images have shown.

Satellite images posted to social media showed what appeared to be the Reagan and several unidentified warships, possibly U.S. and Chinese, sailing in the area northeast of the contested Spratly Island chain in the waterway on Saturday.

Asked about the images, the Reagan’s location and if it was meant to send a message to China, a spokeswoman for the U.S. 7th Fleet declined to confirm the carrier’s location, but said it was currently underway, “conducting routine operations.”

“Her underway is not in response to any specific events,” Cmdr. Reann Mommsen said in an email.

China’s Defense Ministry on Thursday said that the carrier and its strike group, which are home-ported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, were in the South China Sea “to flex muscles and escalate regional militarization.”

“We are firmly opposed to that. We urge the U.S. side to respect the security concerns of countries in the region and make positive contributions to the peace and stability in the South China Sea,” ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang said. “The Chinese military will earnestly perform its duties and missions and firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security.”

China’s ruling Communist Party is due to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Tuesday, rolling out some of its most advanced and powerful weaponry in a show of the progress it has made in modernizing its military. Analysts say the massive military parade to mark the anniversary will likely include cutting-edge anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles capable of sinking U.S. carriers and striking American bases in Japan.

However, the presence of the Reagan in the waterway could be seen as the U.S. attempting to throw cold water on the celebrations amid Washington’s protracted trade war with Beijing.

The U.S. and China are locked in a bitter trade battle, with the world’s two largest economies imposing tariffs on billions of dollars worth of one another’s goods over the past year.

Beijing is also at loggerheads with Washington over the United States’ moves in the Pacific. And, with the Reagan in the strategic waterway, China appears to be girding for the possibility of the U.S. attempting to rain on its parade.

“As for the small trick conducted by warships of some countries around China, I want to stress that the glorious progress China has achieved in the past 70 years has proved no small tricks can impede the great development of China and the Chinese military,” Ren said, when asked about the Reagan carrier group’s presence in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.

Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the waterway, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Spratlys — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry.

The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.