4 March 2016, WASHINGTON (TSR) – The United States Navy has sent an aircraft carrier and a fleet of warships with its 7,000 sailors to the West Philippine Sea.
The carrier strike group John C. Stennis accompanied by the cruiser USS Mobile Bay and the destroyers USS Stockdale and USS Chung-Hoon arrived in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea on Tuesday, said Navy Cmdr. Clay Doss, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The floating headquarters of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, the command ship Blue Ridge, is also in the area, en route to a port visit in the Philippines.
The carrier strike group is the United States’ latest show of force after China’s deployment of Surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracels.
According to defense experts, sending Stennis and its air wing to the West Philippine Sea is a clear signal to China.
“Clearly the Navy and DoD is demonstrating its full commitment to presence and freedom of navigation in the region,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain.
“With the full carrier strike group and the command ship, the Navy is showing the scope of its interests and ability to project presence and power around the world.” he added.
Aside from the carrier strike group, the Japan-based USS Antietam, officials said, also is currently patrolling the West Philippine Sea, said Navy Cmdr. Clay Doss. Similar patrols were completed last week by the USS McCambell, a destroyer, and the USS Ashland, an amphibious dock landing ship.
According to Capt. Michael Wettlaufer, the commanding officer of the Stennis, the aircraft carrier the “world’s finest.”
The Stennis is carrying out a routine patrol in the West Philippine Sea where China has moved its military radar, surface-to-air missiles, and fighter jets.
U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter, earlier this week, warned China of “specific consequences” in its action in the West Philippine Sea.
“The United States wants every nation to have the opportunity to rise and that includes China. We welcome its rise and its inclusion in this architecture. But we don’t welcome aggressive behavior,” Carter said in San Francisco.
“Indeed, while some in the region appear determined to play spoiler, the United States, and our many friends in the region don’t plan on letting anyone suspend seven decades’ worth of progress,” he added.
The Stennis was deployed from Washington state on Jan. 15.
The Philippines claim that their Quirino atoll has been taken but China says it was cleaning up
Five China Coast Guard vessels have taken over Jackson Shoal, a disputed feature in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea some 140 nautical miles west of the Philippines’ Palawan Island, according to a report by the Philippines Star.
Jackson Atoll is a popular fishing ground for Filipino fishermen, and is 33 nautical miles from Mischief Reef, a Spratly Island feature where China has carried out extensive land reclamation work and built an artificial island for possible military use, according to mainstream media speculations.
“We are aware of these press reports regarding Chinese vessels operating near Jackson (Quirino) Atoll, and these are in contested areas of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea),” United States Department of State spokesperson Mark C. Toner said in a press briefing in Washington, D.C. March 2.
“As we have mentioned before, President Obama and leaders of the ASEAN countries in February at Sunnylands confirmed their commitment to maintain peace, security, safety, including freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities in that region, the South China Sea,” Toner added.
“We don’t want to see them using their ships to exert or to – how do I put this. We don’t want to use them – see them using their ships, their navy to intimidate other fishing vessels in that region,” he added.
Armed Forces of the Philippines – Western Command head Vice Admiral Alexander on Wednesday said the reported Chinese vessels have left the said atoll. “In fact the last air patrol on Feb. 24 reveal that Filipino fishermen are there,” Lopez said.
The Chinese have “taken over” another traditional Filipino fishing ground near Palawan where they have stationed up to five ships to keep local fishermen at bay, sources said according to Philippine Star.
The reports also say that China now effectively took control of Quirino or Jackson Atoll, which has been a rich source of catch for a long time for fishermen from Palawan, Southern Luzon, Western Visayas and even Manila.
Gray and white Chinese vessels have not left the atoll, which Filipino fishermen also call Jackson Five, because of the existence of five lagoons in the area.
Filipino fishermen lamented the Chinese vessels would not allow them to come near or linger in the Quirino Atoll, according to Philippine media.
Fishermen from Mindoro Occidental who asked not to be named said Chinese boats chased them away when they tried to enter the area last week.
“These gray and white Chinese ships, around four of them inside the lagoon, prevented us from entering our traditional fishing ground,” one of the fishermen said.
Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. said the Chinese ships have been staying in Quirino Atoll for more than a month now. “They have many ships there,” he said, without elaborating.
Philippine air patrol has confirmed the presence of at least four Chinese coast guard ships in the Jackson lagoons.
A Palawan-based fishing operator said the Chinese began deploying ships to Quirino Atoll after a Manila-based fishing carrier boat ran aground in the area due to bad weather.
The fishing operator said his boats have since been avoiding the area due to the menacing presence of presumably armed Chinese ships. “We can’t enter the area anymore,” he bewailed.
China admits sending several ships to Quirino Atoll in the West Philippine Sea, not to provoke, but only to remove an abandoned Filipino ship that had run aground on the shoal in late 2015 which might cause possible impediment to navigation safety and damage to the marine environment.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also said that they didn’t know how long their ships stayed in the area.
Early last month, Chinese gray and white ships – presumably naval and maritime surveillance vessels – “harassed” Philippine Navy logistic ship BRP Laguna near Hasa-Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal, another Filipino fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea just 60 nautical miles from the southern tip of Palawan, according to Philippine media reports.
In 2012, the Chinese “took control” of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal after a brief standoff with a Philippine Navy vessel whose crew had tried to arrest Chinese poachers.
“Outnumbered and outgunned” by the Chinese, the Filipinos were forced to release the poachers along with their illegal cargo of live baby sharks, giant clams and endangered corals, reports say. The Chinese have never left the shoal since then, they added.
Recent reports that China had positioned surface-to-air missile systems in the Paracel Islands and is constructing over-the-horizon radar systems in the Spratly Islands have raised fears that Beijing is looking to flex its muscles in the South China Sea.
China and the Philippines have faced off over Jackson Shoal in the past. In 2011, Filipino fishermen were warned away from the area by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Jianghu-V-class missile frigate, which also fired warning shots at the fishermen, according to reports.
China has over the years shifted from using naval assets to employing coast guard and maritime law enforcement vessels instead to assert its claims in the South China Sea, prompting some analysts to call these assets its “second navy.”, mainstream media reports say.
Tensions between the Philippines and China have been high in the South China Sea for years, but particularly since 2012, when the two states had a highly visible stand-off over China’s takeover of Scarborough Shoal.
The Chinese are claiming almost the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Manila is contesting Beijing’s claim before an international arbitral court based in The Hague.
In early-2013, Manila initiated an arbitration case against China over the nature of its maritime claims in the South China Sea. In October 2015, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the case and will likely offer a decision on the merits of the Philippines’ arguments in May 2016.
Who is Militarising South China Sea?
The stand-off has been heating up on both sides. After news in February that the Chinese deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile battery to the Paracel Islands, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris told lawmakers that China was militarizing the South China Sea.
“In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea,” Harris testified on Feb. 24. “You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.”
Overnight, Chinese officials dismissed claims that China was militarizing the region, pointing to the Stennis’s patrol as evidence that the U.S. was to blame for the increased military tensions.
A spokesperson for China’s national legislature said Friday that it is the United States that is militarizing the South China Sea.
“The accusation [that China is militarizing the region] can lead to a miscalculation of the situation,” said Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for China’s National People’s Congress.
“If you take a look at the matter closely, it’s the US sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea,” she said.
She said that according to its strategy of pivot to Asia-Pacific, the United States has decided to deploy a larger part of its naval force to this region. It is also strengthening military presence in the Asia Pacific region with its allies, Xinhua reported.
“Isn’t it militarization?” She asked in reply, adding that wrongly accusing China’s militarization in the waters is a hegemonic act in language, which will also mislead the situation.
Most of Chinese lawmakers and ordinary people are not pleased and do not agree with the U.S. showing off military power by sending warships to waters close to the South China Sea islands and reefs.
The United States said it did not take sides in the South China Sea disputes, however, its acts and rhetoric make people feel that it is raising tensions in the region, Fu said.