The American supercarrier USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers, and the USS Blue Ridge, a floating command center and theflagship of the 7th Fleet, have all entered the South China Sea within the last 100 hours. The massive show of force comes as tensions over China’s South China Sea military island outposts continue to rise.
It is a foregone conclusion that China will be heavily militarizing their artificially-created islands in the South China Sea, likely resulting in a chain of invisible threat rings that overlap their way across nearly the entire disputed body of water. So far traditional diplomacy has not stopped this eventuality, and the best the U.S. has done is to sail within the supposed territorial waters of these islands as part of high-profile freedom of navigation exercises.
In recent months, the American military has sent several other ships on Freedom of Navigation missions, including multiple destroyers, cruisers, littoral combat ships, and amphibious assault ships, but never on such a massive scale.
There are alternative strategies that the U.S. could use instead of just a temporary naval presence in the area, but the Obama administration has stayed with the freedom of navigation option, and the most intimidating way to do it is by sailing a carrier strike group into the region. And that is exactly what is happening now.
The presence of the Stennis carrier strike group, along with an extra cruiser and the USS Blue Ridge, sends a huge message to China about the nature of the South China Sea, and American intention to challenge any Chinese sovereignty claims with massive military displays. That is, until the islands become fully armed, at which point the military and diplomatic equation becomes much more complex and volatile.
Everything seems to be going as planned so far, according to the 7th Fleet, although Captain Greg Huffman of the Stennis did make a somewhat ominous point of saying that the carrier group is spotting a larger number of Chinese ships than it normally encounters.
The U.S. has called for a new coalition aimed at keeping a more steady presence in the South China Sea, including Australia, India, and Japan. Getting India, with its blossoming maritime might, involved as a partner in such an operation would be a huge coup for the United States.
This same trio of regional power players, along with the U.S., have announced that they will be executing large-scale cooperative exercises in the South China Sea later this year. This action will likely anger China, but it shows that China will not be able to claim one of the world’s largest shipping lanes, which is also rich in energy reserves and fishing stocks, as its own without a challenge.
Images via US Navy