US Navy carrier group begins South China Sea patrols

Patrols described by US as ‘routine’ have raised concern policies under Donald Trump administration are inconsistent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 11:56am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2017, 11:35pm

A United States aircraft carrier strike group has begun patrols in the South China Sea amid growing tension with China over control of the disputed waterway and concerns it could become a flashpoint under the new US administration.

China did not make official comment on the move on Sunday, but observers said it showed tensions between China and the US over the disputed waters would not be alleviated under the administration of Donald Trump.

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group was engaging in “routine operations in the South China Sea,” the US navy said in a statement on its website.

It noted that the ships and aircraft had recently conducted exercises off Hawaii and Guam to “maintain and improve their readiness and develop cohesion as a strike group”.

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“We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” strike group commander Rear Admiral James Kilby said in the statement.

Friction between the United States and China over trade and territory under US President Trump have increased concerns that the South China Sea could become a flashpoint.

China wrapped up its own naval exercises in the South China Sea on Friday. War games involving its own aircraft carrier have unnerved neighbours with which it has long-running territorial disputes.

Earlier this month, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said the US did not see the need for major military moves in the South China Sea to contend with China’s assertive behaviours, despite saying that China’s action had shredded the trust of nations in the region.

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military affairs commentator, said the patrol by the aircraft carrier strike group showed that the South China Sea policies under Trump are inconsistent.

“On one hand, the defence secretary said the dispute could be solved diplomatically, but on the other hand the US military is acting tough,” he said.

Chinese and US spy planes have close encounter over South China Sea

Ni said the US would increase its presence in the South China Sea with advanced aircraft and missiles, and China would react accordingly.

However, Ni said, Trump also needed to focus on domestic issues, and might not make the maritime disputes a priority.

Jia Xiudong, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, said the patrol showed that tension over the South China Sea disputes would remain high.

“At least, the US shows no intent to lower the tension. There are a lot of people calling on the US to maintain a presence in the South China Sea under the Trump administration,” he said.

China lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the waters that command strategic sea lanes and have rich fishing grounds, along with oil and gas deposits.

The United States has criticised Beijing’s construction of man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui, Reuters, Agence France Presse