ALONG the South China Sea, a giant fleet of American ships, including a nuclear powered American aircraft carrier and its jet fighters, is on the move.
The $3.8 billion super ship is there for a specific reason — the United States Navy says it’s all part of its largest multinational disaster response exercises in the Indo-Pacific region.
Yet while they are right, there seems to be another reason at play — local press suggests the move is a big ‘F-you’ to China, which has continued to build military infrastructure in the disputed region that includes hangars, underground storage and missile shelters.
This is despite a ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague that summarised China had no historic title over its waters.
The ship has been sailing through the disputed waters and local media is reporting jet fighters and helicopters engaging in missions “day and night” in the area, for reasons “ship officials refused to divulge”.
Britain is set to do the same next month when it sends an anti-frigate submarine from Australia through the area to assert freedom of navigation rights.
“She’ll be sailing through the South China Sea (on the way home) and making it clear our navy has a right to do that,” Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told The Australian.
— CSIS (@CSIS) February 26, 2018
The USS Carl Vinson carries 72 aircraft, some of which are surveillance planes.
“When they put a carrier strike group somewhere it helps to show that the United States is interested,” the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Doug Verissimo, told the ABC.
“We don’t have a lot of these, so when you put one in a certain area it has some influence.
“Of course it also gives our diplomats time and space to negotiate and make decisions, ultimately to try and prevent any type of armed conflict.”
Part of America’s Pacific Third Fleet, the Carl Vinson is striking its way through the sea with three other ships including a guided-missile destroyer. Despite keeping themselves hidden away, theyhave formed a protective shield around the Carl Vinson’s barrier.
The Carl Vinson Strike Group’s commander, Rear Admiral John Fuller, wouldn’t say where the Fleet will sail on its mission but insists it is within international law and not complicated by China’s “Nine Dash Line”, which is China’s reimagining of the area it claims to own.
“I will say our navigation is very good and we know where international law says we can operate and I know where international law says we can’t. And we’re going to do what international law says we can do,” Rear Admiral Fuller told the ABC.
There are a few clues over the Carl Vinson’s presence in the region; with the Philippines — who have already been cut off from certain fishing grounds by China — so close to the region. In a statement, the Carl Vinson Strike Group Public Affairs team said its aim was to “work with partners and allies, promote freedom of the seas, and enhance regional security”.
“We are just very thankful for the support we have from the Philippine government and the Philippine people,” said Rear Admiral Fuller. “We have a longstanding relationship and we want to continue to build on that.”
In December last year, satellite images revealed Beijing was continuing to build its bases, including fully functioning air and naval bases that stretch across the Spratly and Paracel islands.
The strategic bases will give China the ability to deploy combat aircraft and other military assets with terrifying efficiency across the disputed region.
China says its island construction was mainly for civilian purposes, particularly to increase safety for ships that carry an estimated $5 trillion worth of goods through the waterway each year.
Last week, US President Donald Trump made a pointed plea to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “We would love to have Australia involved and I think Australia wants us to stay involved,” he said.
In a move likely to prompt a hostile reaction from Beijing, Mr Turnbull refused to rule it out directly.
“Australia, as you know, defends the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world but we do not want to speculate on operational matters,” he told reporters.