US supercarrier to dock in Hong Kong before joint drills in shadow of North Korea crisis
USS Ronald Reagan may test inter-Korean maritime limit in exercises with South Korean navy
A US supercarrier is set to make a port call in Hong Kong this week before heading to waters near the Korean peninsula for a joint naval drill amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
The visit by the USS Ronald Reagan, the biggest US warship based in Asia, will be the first by an American carrier in two years – Beijing turned down a Hong Kong port call request from another US aircraft carrier in April last year.
The USS Reagan is expected to take part in exercises with the South Korean navy around October 15,Yonhap News Agency cited a Seoul defence official as saying.
Concerns have grown over the possibility of the US warship crossing the Northern Limit Line, a de-facto inter-Korean maritime boundary established in the Yellow Sea after the Korean war.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo last week quoted a South Korean government official as saying the US was considering “a wide range of options” against North Korea, including “a US aircraft carrier group crossing over the Northern Limit Line”.
Washington and Seoul have said this month’s joint drill was “prearranged” and not a response to the tensions with Pyongyang. But the decision comes amid fears that the incendiary rhetoric between the US and North Korea, combined with flyovers by US bombers, could trigger miscalculations and even the risk of a military confrontation.
When asked about developments on the peninsula, Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, the commander of the Reagan’s strike group, said the group was long used to keeping itself at full readiness to defend US allies and stability in the region.
“The United States has been very clear about leveraging all options in order to get North Korea to change its path,” Dalton said on Saturday.
Prospects of a breakthrough in the North Korean nuclear crisis dimmed again on Saturday, just hours after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Beijing that Washington was in direct communication with Pyongyang to test the possibility of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The US State Department said that despite the open channels, Pyongyang had showed no signs of being ready to talk or negotiate.
“US diplomats have several open channels in which we can communicate with officials within the North Korean regime,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
“Despite assurances that the United States is not interested in promoting the collapse of the current regime, pursuing regime change, accelerating reunification of the peninsula or mobilising forces north of the [demilitarised zone], North Korean officials have shown no indication that they are interested in or are ready for talks regarding denuclearisation.”
The Japan-based Reagan is the biggest battle force in the US Seventh Fleet and conducts routine operations in the South China Sea.
As such, it is often under the watch of China, which claims most of the disputed waters.
Dalton said the US warship was closely followed “on a regular basis” by Chinese frigates, though he said the interactions between the two navies during the uninvited escort were “professional”.
“We’ve had no issues. They’ve been very professional,” he said.