The San Diego-based carrier Carl Vinson arrived in the South China Sea Saturday to begin a presence patrol mission that will be closely watched by China as the new Trump administration works out what it wants its policy in the region to be.
The U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet announced the Vinson's arrival on its website Feb. 18, calling the patrol "routine operations." Vinson is joined by the destroyer Wayne E. Meyer. The patrol marks the Vinson's 17th trip to the South China Sea.
The Navy's presence in the South China Sea is historically routine, but its patrols there have increasingly agitated China's government, which has made sweeping territorial claims to maritime rights in the 1.35 million-square-mile sea. That has put China at odds with its neighbors and with the United States, which sees itself as the main cop on the beat in the region for protecting freedom of the seas.
Navy Times first reported the pending patrol on Feb. 12, along with the Navy's plans to potentially use the Vinson's carrier strike group for new freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, that would sail close to the increasingly militarized islands that China claims in the Spratly Islands chain and perhaps the Paracel Islands as well.
The Navy Times article sparked a warning from Beijing against upsetting the apple cart in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters last week that the situation there had stabilized due to China's diplomatic efforts with its neighbors.
"We urge the U.S. not to take any actions that challenge China's sovereignty and security," Geng said, according to a Reuters report.
Any new U.S. Navy FONOPs would have to be approved by the White House and its the National Security Council.
Yet it’s unclear how much of a priority the new patrols of China’s claims will be as the Trump administration's NSC is likely undergoing a reorganization under the new national security chief, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who was nominated Monday to be the new national security advisor.
Trump has been tough to pin down on his Asia-Pacific and South China Sea policies. After a recent missile launch by North Korea that occurred during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump called a news conference to make clear that he stood by Japan completely. He thanked Abe for hosting U.S. troops, despite saying during the campaign that Japan needed to pay more for U.S. protection.
Trump’s top advisors have also talked tough on China’s claims in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested the U.S. Navy might blockade China to prevent them accessing their new islands, though Trump administration officials have walked back that threat in recent weeks.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert, said in a recent interview that before the Trump administration pushes ahead with new moves there, they need to develop a set of goals and objectives.
"The Trump administration has to decide what it wants to achieve," said Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"I doubt it it's possible to compel China to withdraw from its newly built islands in the Spratlys. But the U.S. could develop a strategy aimed at preventing more land reclamation, capping militarization and deterring China from using its new outposts to intimidate and coerce its neighbors," Glaser told Navy Times in an interview.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.