Three U.S. Navy Flattops Sail Toward China As War Of Words Escalates
On April 3, a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed waters of the resource-rich South China Sea.
Around the same time, China declared two archipelagos in the area as its own administrative districts, drawing a protest from Vietnam’s foreign ministry.
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Meanwhile, Beijing announced it had established new “research stations” on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, two of the roughly dozen major island bases it has built across the region in recent years.
Two months later in mid-June, the U.S. Navy deployed three aircraft-carrier battle groups to the western Pacific Ocean. The groups together possessed around 20 surface warships, several submarines and nearly 200 aircraft.
The mass naval deployment was no coincidence. With China appearing to take advantage of the novel-coronavirus pandemic to push its claims, the United States was determined to push back.
The Chinese “didn’t count on [the] USN making a strong statement in response,” tweeted Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy aviator who is now an analyst for the Washington, D.C. Center for a New American Security.
The U.S. State Department on April 6 objected to the People’s Republic of China’s springtime maritime moves, starting with the ramming. “This incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” the State Department warned.
It took the Navy a little longer to mobilize the carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt, USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan. The pandemic has been particularly cruel to the crews of Roosevelt and Reagan. Both vessels experienced outbreaks in April.
Roosevelt’s skipper Capt. Brett Crozier came under fire in late March after appealing to his superiors to allow him to disembark his crew in Guam for viral testing. Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly relieved Crozier of command, then flew to Guam to berate Crozier’s sailors. Amid the backlash, Modly resigned.
Mustering three carriers is a feat even in the absence of a pandemic. The Navy plans to deploy just six of its 11 carriers within 30 days of a crisis, plus a seventh within 90 days. Five of the flattops belong to the Pacific Fleet.
The last time the Navy surged three carriers into the Pacific was in 2017. In 1996, the U.S. fleet famously sailed USS Independence and USS Nimitz and their battle groups near Taiwan in response to Chinese threats against the island country.
The events of ‘96 are widely viewed as [a] turning point in China’s growth as a world power. While Beijing had already begun to spend more on its armed forces, “modernization accelerated after the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996, and Chinese defense budgets began to grow rapidly,” the California think-tank RAND explained in a 2015 report.
Consider China’s air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. In ‘96, China’s antiquated Q-5 fighter-bombers could lob YJ-81 missiles around 600 miles from their bases. By 2017, modern J-16 fighters armed with YJ-62s could strike ships as far away as a thousand miles.
So when three American flattops and their escorts sailed into the western Pacific in June, Beijing didn’t hesitate to object. Forcefully.
“By massing these aircraft carriers, the U.S. is attempting to demonstrate to the whole region and even the world that it remains the most powerful naval force, as they could enter the South China Sea and threaten Chinese troops,” state-run Global Times wrote, describing America’s strategy in the region as “hegemonic.”
Chinese forces could strike back, Global Times stressed. “In addition to standard naval warships, aircraft and missiles, China possesses a wide range of weapons designed to sink aircraft carriers, like the medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile DF-21D that can cover the First Island Chain [between Japan and The Philippines], and the intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missile DF-26 that can reach Guam.”
“These missiles can attack medium-sized to large surface vessels from above at very high speeds, making them difficult to intercept.”
“The U.S. deployment of these aircraft carriers is likely nothing more than posturing over security,” Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the Chinese navy’s Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told Global Times.
China’s own moves in the China Seas were also posturing, Hendrix tweeted. The Chinese government “thought they had the U.S. on the ropes.”
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