ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN/TOKYO – Peering over the deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing through a disputed part of the South China Sea, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. George Wikoff said he’s been impressed with the professionalism of China’s navy.
“They remain respectful in accordance with what we anticipate a professional would do, and we respond or initiate in kind when we believe that there is a situation,” said Wikoff aboard the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan last week, after taking over command of Task Force 70 two weeks ago. “It has been very cordial, and I think they have been very professional is really what I’d like to emphasize on both sides.”
Sailing within waters China claims in its so-called nine-dash line off the coast of Malaysia, the $4.5 billion supercarrier was accompanied by one destroyer and two cruisers. It was headed for Singapore as part of freedom of navigation exercises meant to counter China’s growing military presence in the region at a time when both countries are embroiled in a global trade war.
China’s increasing assertiveness in huge swaths of the sea has put fellow claimants like Vietnam on edge in recent months. Beijing says its naval expansion in the area is designed to safeguard an “inalienable” part of its territory, a push that has prompted the U.S. to warn “China is gaining effective control of the South China Sea.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, in testimony before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee panel last week, had harsh words for China’s nine-dash line claims, calling them “both unlawful and unreasonable.”
“These claims, which are without legal, historic, or geographic merit, impose real costs on other countries,” he said in the written testimony. “Through repeated provocative actions to assert the nine-dashed line, Beijing is inhibiting ASEAN members from accessing over $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves, while contributing to instability and the risk of conflict.”
The U.S. has challenged China’s territorial claims with regular freedom of navigation missions since 2015. The most recent came last month when a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Wayne E. Meyer, passed near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
U.S. forces are also contending with China’s rapidly growing arsenal of anti-ballistic missiles and unmanned aircraft, part of what the Pentagon has termed “anti-access/area denial” weapons. Among those showcased during a military parade in Beijing this month include the include DF-17 ballistic missiles believed capable of circumventing U.S. defense systems. A supersonic reconnaissance drone, the DR-8, is designed to defeat air and missile defenses.
Still, Wikoff said he has “no concerns” about the security of U.S. forces operating in contested waters. “I slept very well last night, I slept very well the night before and I’ll sleep very well as we transit back through the South China Sea.”
The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group’s maneuvers have captured China’s attention. China’s Ministry of Defense criticized the U.S. for “flexing its muscles in the region” after the ships participated in war exercises this month, according to a report in the China Daily.
While the admiral wouldn’t talk about the specifics of the carrier group’s mission in the South China Sea, he didn’t deny reports that the aircraft carrier was at one point being tailed by at several Chinese warships.
“We’re never surprised, ever, so make that very clear,” Wikoff said. Still, he noted the mission of the Reagan remains “to be lethal and ready when the bell rings and the call comes to do so.”