US sends carrier strike group to contested South China Sea

The nuclear-powered USS John C. Stennis Photo:

The US Navy has dispatched a small armada to the South China Sea.

The carrier John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship have sailed into the disputed waters in the last 24 hours, according to military officials. The carrier strike group is the latest show of force in the tense region, with the US asserting that China is militarizing the region to guard its excessive territorial claims.

The Stennis deployed from Washington state on January 15.

Navy Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet, downplayed the heavy US presence in the region, saying the carrier is carrying out a routine patrol of the South China Sea, where China has in recent weeks moved Chinese fighter jets, military radar and surface-to-air missiles.

"In 2015 alone, Pacific Fleet ships sailed about 700 combined days in the South China Sea."

Aside from the carrier group, the Japan-based USS Antietam, a cruiser, also is currently patrolling the South China Sea, Doss said. The USS McCambell, a destroyer, and the USS Ashland, an amphibious dock landing ship, completed similar patrols last week.

The stand-off has been heating up on both sides. After news in February that the Chinese had deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile battery to the Paracel Islands, US Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris told lawmakers that China was militarizing the South China Sea.

"In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea," Harris testified on February 24. "You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise."

However, experts say sending Stennis and its air wing to the South China Sea is a clear signal to China and the region.

"Clearly the Navy and (Department of Defense) is demonstrating its full commitment to presence and freedom of navigation in the region,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “With the full carrier strike group and the command ship, the Navy is showing the scope of its interests and ability to project presence and power around world.”

The destroyer Lassen's October patrol within the 12-mile limit of China's manmade South China Sea islands was the first challenge of China's sovereignty over the Spratly Islands since Chinese land-reclamation projects began there.

Naval coalition

On Wednesday, Harris proposed reviving an informal strategic coalition made up of the navies of Japan, Australia, India and the US, an experiment that collapsed a decade ago because of diplomatic protests from China.

The proposal was the latest in a series of US overtures to India, a country wary of forming strategic alliances, to become part of a network of naval powers that would balance China's maritime expansion.

Though he did not specifically mention China on Wednesday, Harris said powerful countries were seeking to “bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion,” and made the case that a broad naval collaboration was the best way to avert it.

“Exercising together will lead to operating together,” he said. “By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia and the United States and so many like-minded nations can aspire to operate anywhere in the high seas and the airspace above it.”

Chinese analysts viewed the grouping as hostile; one called it a “mini-NATO.” China has sent formal diplomatic protests to Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo.

Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, dismissed the idea that the grouping could be revived, and said that India would not join such a network for fear of Chinese retaliation.

“China actually has many ways to hurt India,” he said. “China could send an aircraft carrier to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China had turned down the Pakistan offer to have military stationed in the country. If India forces China to do that, of course we can put a navy at your doorstep.”

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