The carrier Stennis Carrier Strike Group is and its escorts are back on patrol in the South China Sea amid simmering tensions over China’s move toward building another man-made island within striking distance of the Philippines.

The carrier John C. Stennis has been in the region for two weeks, conducing flight operations, training and working with partners, according to U.S. Pacific Fleet officials.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is expected soon to visit the Stennis on its patrol, which comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to respond to China's territorial grab in the strategically vital South China Sea. Details of these discussions emerged last week, when Navy Times reported that the military's top commander in the Pacific is pushing for more aggressive moves to signal that it doesn't consider the artificial islands as entitling China to territorial seas around them.

As part of the ongoing effort, Carter announced Thursday that the U.S. and the Philippines would be conducting joint patrols of the South China Sea; the Philippines is one of the many nations bordering the South China Sea whose claims are in dispute with Chinaworld's most hotly contested bodies of water and one of the worlds most heavily trafficked sea lanes, according to a recent AP report

Experts and insiders say U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris, who has testified that China is militarizing the South China Sea, has been lobbying for a stronger response to Chinese expansion there. That may include sending more U.S. warships to patrol within 12 miles of the artificial islands to launch aircraft and conduct operations, activities not allowed within a nation's territorial waters, as well as senior leader visits and stronger cooperation with allies in the region such as the Philippines, sources said.

These islands could support China's claims to nearly the entire South China Sea. and U.S. Pacific Command officials have been pitching a stronger approach to China, which may including more frequent freedom of navigation operations that make clear the U.S. doesn’t recognize China’s territorial claims on certain features and islands in the region.

As much as 30 percent of global shipping passes through this sea, making it essential for all nations to have unfettered access to the sea lanes, the U.S. Navy’s top officer said Wednesday.  told Navy Times Wednesday that his fleet’s operations there were about maintaining free access to the sea lanes and providing options to policy makers, including the White House, as they work with the Chinese government.

"We have to provide a range of options that are credible, so we've got to be there in a way that is real, defendable," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in an exclusive interview with Navy Military Times and Defense News. "We've got to be there or there's no options."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson says he wants the Navy to provide policymakers with many options amid tensions over the disputed South China Sea.

Photo Credit: Alan Lessig/Staff

Asked whether he would support "a more muscular response" to China's island-building, Richardson pushed back on the phrase, saying the legal issues will be addressed by the international Permanent Court of Arbitration and that the U.S. Navy would provide policymakers with a variety of options.

"We want to make sure we provide more options to our decision-makers, our leaders," he said in the interview. "It's complicated, we have to make sure we leave room for everyone to exercise their options as well."

Richardson said that part of protracted great power competition is at times watching how you speak about moves to avoid things and not boxing in others with areas of the government or by using inflammatory language.

"When we use words like 'muscular' and those sorts of things, we need to be thoughtful in the way we describe this," Richardson said. "This is great power competition: These types of interactions, this sort of dialogue, is going to be more the norm going forward. So as we settle into this new normal, we want to make sure that we continue to open options for our leadership and others consistent with abiding by that rule set that allows everybody to operate and use those sea lanes."

The Stennis patrol began March 31, according to PACFLT spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, who said: "In addition to routine operations, the strike group will conduct port visits, exercises and exchanges with regional partner navies. These cooperative engagements are part of an enduring commitment to regional security, stability and prosperity."

Stennis made a South China Sea patrol in March ahead of a major exercise with South Korea. The carrier then sailed back to the South China Sea to continue presence operations.

The South China Sea has become one of the world's foremost flashpoints. The latest evidence suggests China may try to perch an island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles from off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila that would put U.S. forces there at risk in a crisis.

Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012, is one of the main points of contention in the Philippines' case against China in the international court. and well within the Philippines' 200-mile economic exclusion zone that would extend China's claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put U.S. forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.

patrol comes as both the military and its civilian leadership are trying to figure out about how to address China's continued island building, which leaders including the military's top officer in the Pacific has said is militarizing the region.

Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who has followed PACOM's strategy, said he thinks Harris is lobbying for more assertive freedom of navigation patrols that include military operations such as helicopter flights and signals intelligence within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed features. Such patrols, Clark said, would make clear the Navy does not acknowledge Chinese claims and that the surrounding waters are international.

"He wants to do real [freedom of navigation operations]," Clark said. "He wants to drive through an area and do military operations."

"The strike group began a routine patrol in the South China Sea March 31," said Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matt White. "In addition to routine operations, the strike group will conduct port visits, exercises and exchanges with regional partner navies.

"These cooperative engagements are part of an enduring commitment to regional security, stability and prosperity."

"In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea," Harris told lawmakers on Feb. 24. "You'd have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise."

Amid these tensions, the National Security Council instructed military leaders in a March 18 request to refrain from publicly commenting on the South China Sea in the weeks before a one-on-one meeting between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, an order which one official said had a "chilling effect" at the military's highest rungs. However, military leaders disputed Navy Times' characterization of the March 18 memo as a gag order.

Harris also interpreted the article to imply a "disconnect" between the White House and PACOM, which he strongly objected to.

"Any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true," Harris said in a statement provided April 7. "My private counsel to the President and the Secretary during classified deliberations wouldn't be worth much if it weren't private. Maintaining that trust is why senior military admirals and generals won't discuss our counsel in public."

"So any suggestion that 'the White House has sought to tamp down' on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong," Harris added, calling Navy Times' reporting "sensationalistic" and "irresponsible."

A U.S. Pacific Command spokesman declined to make Harris or any other PACOM officials available for an interview and did not respond to questions seeking comment about Harris' push for more options, including freedom of navigation patrols by warships conducting military operations.

Evidence is mounting that China aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines' capital of Manila and well within the Philippines' 200-mile economic exclusion zone that would extend China's claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put U.S. forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.

Lawmakers are have also been calling for clarity on the U.S. position in the South China Sea, which for years has been that the U.S. doesn't take sides in the territorial disputes among China and its neighbors. An influential seapower advocate on the Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia and member of the House Armed Services Committee is urging the , said in a statement to Navy Times that the U.S. to establish a clear position and continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations.

"The U.S. Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea for decades, and the Chinese reclamation of artificial features in these waters should have no bearing on such operations," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., said in a statement. "The Administration should clearly and unambiguously reject China's legal claims and their militarization of these features. U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific are best served when the United States acts consistently and speaks clearly on matters as sensitive as Beijing's destabilizing regional behavior."

Part of the approach advocated by senior military leaders also includes continuing to host senior military leaders in the region. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the carrier Theodore Roosevelt when it was on patrol in the South China Sea in November to meet with sailors and do photo-ops. Carter is also expected to visit Stennis in the South China Sea soon., said a defense official who spoke on background to discuss the secretary’s travel.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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