U.S. Carriers Send a Message to Beijing Over South China Sea

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US carriersFaced with increasingly brazen Chinese efforts to exercise control over the entirety of the South China Sea, the U.S. military is using a series of big aircraft carrier operations to show allies that the United States isn’t about to turn its back on the hotly contested region.

Over the weekend, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz sailed into the South China Sea, another challenge to China’s claims of maritime sovereignty in the area that have been consistently challenged by American allies. More than a routine passage of the type meant to assert the right to free navigation, the exercise reportedly included the use of jets, reconnaissance planes, and helicopters, while Chinese sailors held competing drills near the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Current and former defense officials worry that China has seized on the coronavirus pandemic to ramp up its efforts to militarize the so-called nine-dashed line, Beijing’s sweeping claim to sovereignty over the vast majority of the South China Sea, a conduit for trillions of dollars in annual trade and a potential motherlode of oil and natural gas.

Since earlier this year, while the United States and other countries were grappling with the spread of the pandemic, China has systematically stepped up its efforts to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake, installing floating and land-based monitoring systems on and around artificial islands, browbeating neighbors such as Vietnam and Malaysia that sought to drill for oil, and crossing sabers with Philippine warships. China has also redoubled its administrative reach in the South China Sea, which could give it greater ability to turn atolls and islets into an extension of the mainland.

China’s ongoing aggression in the South China Sea has gotten a boost as the economic headwinds from the pandemic, which originated in China, has given Beijing more incentive to fuel nationalism through aggressive foreign-policy actions.

“It seems as though their foreign-policy adventurism has not in any way been clipped since coronavirus,” said Randall Schriver, who served as the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs until December 2019. “Stoking nationalism is helpful for a time when they’re struggling at home.”

The high-profile U.S. carrier operations are seen as a way to signal continued U.S. resolve, after another carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was laid up in Guam for two months after nearly 1,000 sailors contracted the virus.

“I think there were some questions after the Roosevelt was out of commission for a bit as to whether our capacity to do things was diminished,” said Schriver, who is now chairman of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on U.S. policy in Asia.

“It’s a long-term play to demonstrate that the Chinese haven’t changed the nature of that water.”

The U.S. deployment is driven in part by demands by America’s allies in the region to push back more against China’s behavior. Schriver said allied navies have reported an uptick in threats from the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese coast guard in attempting to transit the sea; Chinese vessels regularly shadow and threaten ships transiting what are still international waters. The surge in American exercises has been driven by demand from allies, particularly Vietnam and Taiwan, and especially renewed interest from the Philippines to push back.

The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, had under President Rodrigo Duterte become increasingly cozy with China, even moving to abrogate a military forces agreement with Washington this February. But the growing threat from China has Manila rethinking—it has put the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement on hold for now while it seeks U.S. muscle to counter Beijing.

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