U.S. deploys carrier to contentious South China Sea

The United States deployed aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to patrol the increasingly contentious South China Sea, despite Beijing’s warnings not to challenge its sovereignty in the resource-rich sea.

The Navy described Saturday’s launch as the beginning of “routine operations” in the South China Sea. China claims most of the sea as its own, despite overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.

Last week at a news conference, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, denounced advance news of the deployment.

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” he said. “China respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea which countries enjoy under international law, but firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight.”

He added that China urged the U.S. to “refrain from challenging China’s sovereignty and security” in the sea.

About 30% of global maritime trade passes through the South China Sea each year, worth $5.3 trillion, according to the U.S. Defense Department in a 2015 report. The waters are also key fishing resources and are rich in oil and natural gas reserves.

In July, an international tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, issued a sweeping condemnation of China’s claims and conduct in the disputed waters. China said it did not recognize the ruling, which it described as “null and void.”

Since 2013, China has been creating artificial islands on all seven of the islets and reefs it claims in the Spratly Islands chain, equipping many with military-grade airfields and weapons systems.

The United States has taken no position on the territorial claims but has conducted periodic freedom of navigation operations near the Chinese holdings, which have triggered heated warnings from Beijing. In July, a senior Chinese admiral said such operations could end “in disaster.”

Tensions have also risen in the past over occasional close encounters between U.S. and Chinese ships and aircraft around the disputed areas. In the most recent case, on Feb. 8, a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion patrol aircraft and a Chinese surveillance plane flew within 1,000 feet of each other over the South China Sea, an encounter that naval officials believed to be inadvertent.

Ahead of its deployment to the South China Sea, the USS Carl Vinson and other ships and aircraft from the strike group conducted training off Hawaii and Guam.

“The training completed over the past few weeks has really brought the team together and improved our effectiveness and readiness as a strike group,” Rear Adm. James Kilby, commander of the strike group, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

The deployment comes as the new Trump administration defines its policies and priorities toward the South China Sea. During his confirmation hearing in January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a hard line on Beijing’s activities in the area, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, during a visit to Tokyo this month,  criticized China for its assertiveness in the South China Sea, saying it had “shredded the trust of nations in the region,” but he emphasized a more diplomatic approach.

“What we have to do is exhaust all efforts, diplomatic efforts, to try to resolve this properly, maintaining open lines of communication,” he said. “At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves.”

Mattis stressed that the U.S. would continue its policy of freedom of navigation operations. “Freedom of navigation is absolute, and whether it be commercial shipping or our U.S. Navy, we will practice in international waters and transit international waters as appropriate,” he said.a