It's likely that the most the sailors on board the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis will see of Chinese territory are the Chinese warships shadowing their patrol of the contested have been shadowed by Chinese Navy in the South China Sea for most of the last month, but that's the most they'll see of China.
The Chinese government has canceled a planned Hong Kong port visit for the 4,000 sailors of the Stennis in Hong Kong, telling the U.S. consulate that the timing was "inconvenient" for China, according to a Navy official familiar with the communications.
Stennis has been in the South China Sea since March 31 conducting operations and was the backdrop for a high-level visit by Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who had just announced joint U.S. and Philippine patrols of China's man-made islands. Amid these tensions, ships with and Navy officials say the People's Liberation Army Navy haves been shadoweding the carrier's movements for nearly a month. The U.S. has called the interactions between the navies the whole time, interactions the Navy has called "professional."
The command ship Blue Ridge is in port Hong Kong, however, and its port visit will not be affected. This is the first time since August 2014 that the Chinese have canceled a routine port visit. U.S. aircraft carriers have a deep draft and must anchor off the coast, with ferries whisking sailors through Hong Kong harbor for liberty.
"It is entirely possible that it really was just inconvenient for them," the official said.
On the other hand, the move could be a tit-for-tat after Carter's announcements on his high-profile visit, which triggered recriminations from Beijing. It is likely, however, that the Chinese government is irked with the U.S. presence in the South China sea over the past 30 days, especially given the high-profile visit from Defense Secretary Ash Carter April 15, during which he was accompanied by his Philippine counterpart.
The Chinese are locked in a territorial dispute with the Philippines over an atoll 140 miles off the coast of the country's capital Manila that is likely to soon be decided by an international court. The looming decision, along with stepped-up U.S. patrols, have led to mounting tensions in the disputed region. U.S. lawmakers are urging more of these patrols in an attempt to deter China from its island-building campaign.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and has reinforced its claims by constructing building man-made islands on rocky outcroppings, reefs and atolls in the region. Its neighbors claim China is bullying them, and the U.S. has opposed what it sees as China's coercive tactics to enforce its claims.
Stennis is on a routine Western Pacific deployment. It left from Washington state on Jan. 15.