U.S. vs. China in South China Sea

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson left a four-day port visit in the Philippines on Tuesday and is leading a strike group to conduct a “freedom of navigation operation” in the South China Sea. (Associated Press) more >

By Bill Gertz – – Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Pentagon is stepping up its strategic messaging targeting China with the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson now underway in the South China Sea.

The Vinson strike group, including the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy, left a four-day port visit in the Philippines on Tuesday.

The carrier will resume operations in the contested sea — close to where China is militarizing several disputed islets, including Scarborough Shoal, some 100 miles from the Philippines.

The Vinson is expected to conduct a “freedom of navigation operation” involving disputed islands in the sea in the coming days. It also is expected to make a port call in Danang, Vietnam, next month.

“U.S. presence matters,” Rear Adm. John Fuller, strike group commander, told reporters on board the warship. “I think it’s very clear that we are in the South China Sea. We are operating.”

A Navy official was more specific: “Vinson ops in the [South China Sea] are designed to promote freedom of navigation, show the U.S./Navy flag and work with our partners and allies — all to message China that these waters aren’t theirs.”

The Navy expects Chinese warships to closely shadow the Vinson and its accompanying warships throughout its operations. “Typically, the interactions are professional and predictable,” the official said.

The Vinson visit followed an incident involving U.S. and Chinese warships in the region last month. China’s Defense Ministry claimed a Chinese warship forced the guided-missile destroyer USS Hopper out of the South China Sea last month. The Pentagon denied that the warship was driven from the waters, where it was conducting a freedom of navigation operation.

The carrier deployment began in early January as part of a new Navy command arrangement called “3rd Fleet Forward” — control by the Navy’s 3rd Fleet, the force of ships based on the West Coast and Alaska.

In the past, 3rd Fleet forces automatically shifted command to the Japan-based 7th Fleet upon crossing the international dateline.

“The new 3rd Fleet Forward construct expands 3rd Fleet control of ships and aircraft across the Western Pacific and beyond the international dateline to India, enabling 3rd and 7th Fleet to operate together across a broad spectrum of maritime missions — 7th Fleet maintains the ‘fight tonight missions,’ and 3rd Fleet does the phase zero and presence missions,” the Navy official said.

The new command system “allows us to keep pressure on competitors and reassure allies, splitting the focus among two staffs. This is a good thing,” the official said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis said last week that Chinese militarization in the sea was part of the reason he shifted U.S. defense strategy from terrorism to dealing with China and Russia.

“What made the competition explicit was the turning of atolls and features in the South China Sea in the military outposts,” he said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry so far have not directly criticized the Vinson deployment. Beijing appears to be holding its propaganda fire until after the Vinson’s freedom of navigation operation.

The Communist Party-linked newspaper Global Times quoted a Chinese military expert denouncing the Vinson’s deployment.

“The Trump administration is trying to pressure China by creating more issues, including the South China Sea issue, as it feels uneasy and unsatisfied by China’s raising competitiveness,” said Liu Weidong, a research fellow at the Institute of American Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Additional provocative moves by the U.S. such as entering the South China Sea can be expected in the future.”

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told reporters aboard the Vinson last week: “International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that’s what we’re doing and we’re going to continue to do that.”

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