On June 12th, for the first time in a while, 3 US aircraft carriers were patrolling the Pacific Ocean, not too far from the South China Sea.
The unusual simultaneous appearance of the three warships, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircraft, comes as the U.S. and China are escalating tensions, mostly due to the Washington’s attempts to antagonize it in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, about COVID-19, and Taiwan, among other, less significant issues.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group are operating in the Philippine Sea near Guam.
The USS Nimitz strike group is in the Pacific off the U.S. West Coast.
The USS Ronald Reagan has left port in Japan and is operating in the Philippine Sea south of there.
“There have been some indications in Chinese writings that the United States was hit hard by COVID-19, that military preparedness was low, so perhaps there is an effort by the United States to signal China that it should not miscalculate,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese will definitely portray this as an example of U.S. provocations, and as evidence that the U.S. is a source of instability in the region.”
The US National Security Strategy, as well as the recent Republican-released suggestions put China as the top US competitor around the globe, and for a while now the US Department of Defense has been working to deploy more assets and resources in the region around China, similarly to what’s observed in Europe near the Russian border.
“The ability to be present in a strong way is part of the competition. And as I always tell my guys here, you’ve got to be present to win when you’re competing,” said Rear Adm. Stephen Koehler, director of operations at Indo-Pacific Command. “Carriers and carrier strike groups writ large are phenomenal symbols of American naval power. I really am pretty fired up that we’ve got three of them at the moment.”
Speaking to The Associated Press, Koehler said China is slowly and methodically building up military outposts in the South China Sea, putting missile and electronic warfare systems on them.
In China, state outlet Global Times published a response.
“By massing these aircraft carriers, the US 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 on the Xisha and Nansha islands (Paracel and Spratly islands) as well as vessels passing through nearby waters, so the US could carry out its hegemonic politics,” the Global Times report quoted Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert.
The Global Times also cited other experts, such as Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute and Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst.
According to Junshe, the US is lacking confidence in its activities, and that is why it is receiving such wide media coverage and its advertising its deployment.
“The US Navy deploys its carrier strike groups throughout the world. But it is usually not covered heavily in the news. The high-profile media exposure this time is noteworthy as it embodies the US’ lack of confidence.
They seem to worry that the outside world is doubting their military capability. Therefore, the US Navy decided to send its carrier strike groups to flex muscles in the West Pacific region, exhibiting to other countries that their combat capability was ultimately not hindered by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As a matter of fact, the morale and the combat capability of these US aircraft carriers have certainly been influenced by the pandemic. Some of the infected soldiers may have not fully recovered, and cannot return to their posts. The US Navy is just puffing itself up at its own cost. It is utterly unnecessary to dispatch carrier groups to the West Pacific when the US is hit hard by the pandemic.”
He further said that according to him, the US doesn’t release reports to what extent the Navy was affected by COVID-19, and simply wants to show that it is still capable.
“Furthermore, the US deployment of these aircraft carriers is likely nothing more than posturing over security with other strong powers such as China and Russia.
It is widely seen that as the US economy still struggles to recover from impact of the pandemic, the military has become a pillar of the US in its competition with other powers. Neither Beijing nor Moscow is willing to compete with Washington with its new cold war baiting. Such practices will negatively impact global peace and stability.”
Essentially, the US is struggling so much, and its apparent fall from grace and from the throne of global hegemony need to be hidden behind deployments such as these.
The other expert, Wei Dongxu thinks that the three carriers will not approach China, because that would send a “very dangerous signal, triggering tensions in the region.”
“However, the US Navy may deploy one aircraft carrier each time around China to provoke it. For example, the US may first deploy an aircraft carrier near China and the other two may carry out activities in peripheral areas. Through such rotation, the US can make its aircraft carriers frequently appear near China’s doorsteps.”
According to him, carrier-based aircraft may be dispatched from a great distanced, in a sort of “muscle-flexing,” such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-35C fighter jets.
Of course, China doesn’t need to sit idly and do nothing.
“To cope with the US’ carrier-based aircraft, China must develop integrated warning systems for land, sea and air. For example, China can use early warning and control aircraft to patrol. Once it finds that the US makes provocative actions or is moving closer to China’s airspace, it can send out more advanced fighters to intercept them. The US may deploy more F-35C stealth fighters in the future. This requires more advanced technology to detect and track them, such as anti-stealth radar. Preventing stealth aircraft and stealth drones should be our main task in terms of preventing air and marine provocations.”