ABOARD USS CARL VINSON, South China Sea — America will continue to patrol the South China Sea to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed region, a US admiral said yesterday amid questions on whether US involvement in one of Asia’s potential flashpoints will change.
“We will be here,” Rear Adm. James Kilby said on board the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as it steamed through the gentle blue waters, with F-18 fighter jets landing, taking off on catapults and zooming over the mammoth warship.
“We have operated here in the past, we’re going to operate here in the future, we’re going to continue to reassure our allies,” Kilby said. “We will continue to demonstrate that international waters are waters where everyone can sail, where everyone can conduct commerce and merchant traffic, and that’s the message we want to leave with people.”
A commercial ship gingerly cruised several kilometers away as the Carl Vinson’s kilometer-long flight deck, where crewmembers checked several parked F-18s, a surveillance aircraft and helicopters, throbbed with activity under a mild breeze.
Kilby’s comments followed reported Chinese moves to install missile defense systems on islands it recently built, and the inauguration of a new US president who has raised questions about America’s role in Asia.
The US military took a group of journalists to the aircraft carrier during a routine patrol of the South China Sea, one of the world’s security hotspots, in a mission that US Navy officials said has continued for decades.
A US administration official has said the Carl Vinson strike group’s deployment in the South China Sea, a month after President Donald Trump took office, signaled US intent to have a more active naval presence in the region.
Accompanied by a guided-missile destroyer and aircraft, the Carl Vinson began “routine operations” in the South China Sea on Feb. 18. It last deployed to the Western Pacific in 2015 when it conducted an exercise with the Malaysian navy and air force, according to the Pentagon.
The official declined to comment on whether the aircraft carrier group would undertake a freedom of navigation operation, a right that American officials have asserted in the past. The official requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists on the administration’s policy.
President Duterte should assert the country’s rights in the South China Sea as stipulated in the July 2016 decision of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, experts on Southeast Asia said on Thursday.
“I think if President Duterte is reading the polls, he would think carefully about the July 12 decision because if you look at what Filipino people think they are very strong in the arbitration case in South China Sea,” said Ernest Bower, senior adviser for the Southeast Asia Program Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bower was referring to a December 2016 survey of Pulse Asia showing 84 percent of Filipinos who agreed the Duterte government should uphold the Philippines’ rights in the disputed region.
“Over 82 percent of Filipinos would like to see the arbitration case followed up and followed through on. I think that the President is also up in the 80s so if he wants to stay there… he should follow through with that case,” Bower said.
“He (Duterte) seems to be a very good reader of national opinion and if I were him, I would heed my people on this question,” he said.
Bower lauded the Philippines for showing courage in filing the case before the UN tribunal.
“I think the Philippines showed a lot of courage. It had nothing to do with Philippine domestic politics, it had to do with the Philippines sovereignty and the rest of Asia and I think the world admired the Philippines’ courage and leadership to take that case and get the decision and I believe PRRD (Duterte) would be wise to follow through on it,” he said.
Bower said the Philippines took the arbitral case to The Hague because it wanted a decision based on rule of law.
Bower and Murray Hiebert, also a senior adviser and deputy director Southeast Asia Program Center for Strategic International Studies, said the Philippines and other claimant-countries in Southeast Asia should lower their expectations on forging a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
“Big question is if it is at all possible to do it? They’ve been working on it for years. If really China is dragging its feet and I think, in many ways, ASEAN would be better off leaving it to try and focus on some other things,” Hiebert said.
“We took a long time to negotiate the declaration of conduct and then it took 10 years to put in some non-binding principles. So I’m not sure that’s the most effective way to negotiate to get what ASEAN wants out of China,” he said.
A new Chinese cruise ship has embarked on its maiden voyage to the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, state news agency Xinhua said yesterday, the latest effort by Beijing to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway.
The Changle Princess sailed from Sanya on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan on Thursday afternoon with 308 passengers on a four-day voyage, Xinhua said.
The new ship can carry 499 people and has 82 guest rooms with dining, entertainment, shopping, medical and postal services on board, it added.
Tourists will be able to visit the three islands in the Crescent group of the Paracels, Xinhua said.
China has previously said it plans to build hotels, villas and shops on the Crescent group and has also said it wants to build Maldives-style resorts around the South China Sea, though it is unclear if foreigners will ever be allowed to visit.