This story was originally published May 5 at 2:31 p.m. and has been updated.
It should come as no surprise that The U.S. Navy’s stepped up patrols in the South China Sea are getting under the skin of some Chinese leaders.
An outlet A recent editorial in a hawkish tabloid affiliated with the Chinese communist party implied the U.S. Navy’s patrols prompted a port-visit denial and blasted the Pacific Fleet for raising tensions in the region. blamed the Navy’s presence and its buildup of the Pacific Fleet for rising tensions. The John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group has been in the South China Sea for more than a month and was denied a port visit to Hong Kong, a move that many saw as payback for the long patrol and many say as a sign of Chinese pique over its prolonged stay and a recent photo-op visit by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The editorial, which ran in the Global Times, claims the buildup is part of a concerted effort to threaten China's off-shore interests.
"The U.S. Pacific Fleet has now become the biggest source of such a pessimistic mentality for both countries," Global Times wrote in a May 4 editorialreads. "While they have become accustomed to controversies such as human rights, trade frictions and diplomatic divergences on hot spots, the US abruptly started its menacing military deployment against China's offshore interests, showcasing its military muscle by sending naval vessels and warplanes to China.
"That seems to be changing the nature of the Sino-US frictions. Due to the severe strategic suspicions, military problems have unprecedentedly emerged between the two."
Experts rely on editorials in state-approved media to are often used to gauge opinions inside the Chinese government.
A spokesman for Pacific Fleet shot back, saying the U.S. presence in the region is hardly a new development.
"Pacific Fleet has operated there for decades, averaging about 700 ship days a year in the South China Sea alone," said Cmdr. Clay Doss.
China, which has been constructing islands and airstrips atop reefs and rocky outcroppings in the Spratly Islands, sees the whole South China Sea as its their Chinese territory. Evidence is mounting that China also aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles from off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila and well within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone which 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.
Global Times, a tabloid, is among the most hawkish voices within Chinese state media andbut the editorial may reveal presents deep-seatedededfrustrations within some elements of the Chinese government, especially the military, said Zhiqun Zhu, a political scientist who heads The China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he is an associate professor of political science and international relations.
"In their views, U.S. military involvement in the South China Sea, especially U.S. Navy's freedom of navigation operations, have complicated the dispute and emboldened other claimants especially the Philippines to stand up against China," Zhu said.
"The USS John C. Stennis’s port call on Hong Kong was denied exactly because of U.S. Navy's more frequent and active patrols in the region that are challenging Beijing's position," he said. "This is a political statement. I think Beijing wants to see a decrease or more low-profile of U.S. military activities in the region."
The cancellation angered some U.S. officials and lawmakers, including Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Virginia., who is a member of the who heads an influential subcommittee in the House Armed Services Committee. Forbes called for the U.S. to respond by considering a port visit to Taiwan, which would almost certainly infuriate Beijing.The canceled port call to Hong Kong visit was the first time in three years since 2014 that the Chinese have canceled liberty call for U.S. sailors, but it certainly is not unprecedented. The amphibious command ship Blue Ridge was in Hong Kong at the time, however, and its port visit was not affected.
"China has repeatedly politicized the long-standing use of Hong Kong for carrier port visits, inconveniencing the families of thousands of U.S. sailors and continuing a pattern of unnecessary and disruptive behavior," Forbes said in a statement.
"As Beijing's direct control of Hong Kong intensifies, the U.S. Navy should strongly consider shifting its carrier port calls to more stable and welcoming locations. While China finds profit in needlessly harming our sailors' families, many U.S. allies and partners in the region, including Taiwan, would no doubt welcome our carriers and their crews with open arms. The time has come to consider these alternate locations going forward."
That move would likely be a non-starter, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert and directorion of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"The proposal that U.S. carriers should use ports in Taiwan instead of Hong Kong is unlikely to be considered," Glaser said. "It would be among the most provocative actions that the U.S. could take from Beijing's point of view.
"It would be viewed as a direct challenge to Chinese sovereignty. … Such a move would be seen inas Beijing as signaling U.S. support for Taiwan independence and emboldening [Taiwan’s new president] to challenge Beijing."
Zhu, the Bucknell professor, said the flare-up will harm military-to-military relations but shouldn’t have a lasting impact.
"As happened in the past, such incidents harm military relations in the short-term," he said. "But it seems both militaries are playing down the incident. … So the militaries are keeping the doors open, which is good news."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.