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China-US relations

No fears about China navy build-up – even after near miss, USS Ronald Reagan commander says

  • Rear Admiral Karl Thomas says a close call between warships of the two navies was a rare event
  • Hong Kong port call by American aircraft carrier strike group a sign that Beijing wants to ease tensions before Xi-Trump meeting at G20, analysts say
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 7:25pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 9:51am

The commander of a US Navy aircraft strike group said he was “not worried” about China’s naval build-up, despite an “aggressive” near miss between vessels from the two countries in the South China Sea two months ago.

Rear Admiral Karl Thomas made the comments aboard the USS Ronald Reagan after it sailed into Hong Kong at the head of a strike group on Wednesday, following training exercises in the contested waters.

“Certainly I’m aware that other nations are also building their navies,” he said. “The good thing is that navies are able to operate around one another, it doesn’t really matter what is going on around the world, so [I’m] not worried.

“Peace and that prosperity for this region, it’s really built on freedom of the seas, it’s really built on the ability to have open trade.”

The US Navy’s port call comes as tensions between China and the United States are on the rise and after the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp was denied entry into Hong Kong waters in September.

Analysts said the approval for the port call this week showed Beijing was trying to ease tensions before a high-stakes meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump at the G20 summit at the end of the month.

USS Ronald Reagan carrier group to visit Hong Kong as China holds out olive branch to America

Thomas said a near miss between US and Chinese warships during US “freedom of navigation” exercises in September was a rare occurrence.

“In that particular case, the ship made some aggressive, continuing aggressive manoeuvres, and our ship warned them and had to manoeuvre to prevent a collision,” he said.

“It was unfortunate, I’d like to see that not happen again. And I think in general, we are professional mariners and we know how to operate around one another.”

Military analysts said the port visit and the US Navy’s invitation to a senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commander to board the aircraft carrier showed Washington’s desire to maintain military ties, despite the ongoing trade war and broader strategic tensions.

Lieutenant General Tan Benhong, the commander of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, and other officers were invited to watch the US Navy’s Super Hornet fighter jets perform a take-off and landing exercise on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan while it sailed towards Hong Kong on Tuesday.

“I had a chance to show [Tan] flight operations, so he had a chance to see the young professional navy sailors and how we conduct flight operations day in and day out on this carrier,” Thomas said. “I think he gained a healthy respect for the capability of this ship.”

Exclusive details and footage emerge of near collision between warships in South China Sea

The port call came just days after the United States flew two B-52 bombers for a “routine training mission” near the South China Sea on Monday, despite Beijing’s sensitivity about military activities in the waters it claims.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, also said on Wednesday that China had installed a new platform which could be used for military purposes on a remote part of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea .

The centre, citing satellite images, said there was a “modest new structure” on Bombay Reef, topped by solar panels and a dome to protect radar equipment.

“The reef is directly adjacent to the major shipping lanes that run between the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south, making it an attractive location for a sensor array to extend Chinese radar or signals intelligence collection over that important sea lane,” the group said.

Beijing-based naval analyst Li Jie said it was a “very rare opportunity” for a senior PLA official to see how the nuclear-powered vessel could launch four of the fighters simultaneously on steam-driven catapults and arresting gear systems.

“The port call approval and the US Navy’s invitation to General Tan ... indicate that both the US and Chinese leaderships realise there might continue to be conflicts in the China-US relationship but they don’t want a total breakdown,” Li said, adding that Tan’s visit to the carrier showed the two militaries had “political trust”.

“High-level military-to-military exchanges can only be maintained if there is stable political and diplomatic relations.

“It’s also possible that the US Navy wanted to use this opportunity to show the Americans’ military might, telling the senior PLA officials that it’s still quite difficult for China to catch up to the US in carrier technology.”

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the port call also served as a reminder for the PLA that they were incapable of showing the kind of military muscle that the US Navy could flex.