US Navy deploys strike group to South China Sea

(The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2016 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The United States Navy has deployed a small armada to the South China Sea in what is considered a show of force as tensions rise over China’s construction of artificial islands in disputed waters.

Quoting US military officials, the Navy Times reported that the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis, the destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockdale, cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay along with the Blue Ridge, command ship of the Japan-based Seventh Fleet, set off recently for the South China Sea, where Beijing has installed surface-to-air missiles and built an airstrip on reclaimed area.

The Blue Ridge is on its way to the Philippines for a port call, while the Antietam, also based in Japan, is conducting a “routine patrol” in the area, the Navy Times reported. It added that the nuclear-powered Stennis deployed from Washington state on Jan. 15.

The recent deployments come amid US accusations that China is “militarizing” the South China Sea – a charge that Beijing has disputed.

Testifying before the US Senate last month, Adm. Harry Harris, chief of the Hawaii-based Pacific Command, told the Armed Service Committee, “In my opinion, China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea… You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.”

Harris also expressed concern to reporters that China would declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea as he noted that Beijing had so far reclaimed nearly 3,000 acres of “military bases” in disputed waters.

An ADIZ would require passing aircraft to identify itself and declare its intentions to China’s aviation authority. International law allows a nation to declare an ADIZ within its territory. But several nations including the Philippines are claiming parts of the South China Sea, which China is claiming almost entirely as its own.

“When they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels, and when they build three 10,000-foot runways in the Spratlys on the basis that they’ve reclaimed – when they do all of that, they’re changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea,” Harris told reporters at the Pentagon last month. “Short of war, they can rise to the level of having tactical control of the waterways of the South China Sea.”

Beijing lambasted Harris for “sowing discord” and intending “to smear China’s legitimate and reasonable actions” in the disputed area, adding, “He is finding an excuse for US maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”

Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi said “demilitarization” in the area should include the US and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN foreign ministers, at a recent meeting in Vientiane, Laos, had expressed concern over Chinese actions in the disputed waters.

China has reportedly deployed HQ-9 anti-air warfare missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels near Vietnam while the Chinese single-seat fighter jet Shenyang J-11 was also seen in the area. A high-tech air search radar capable of detecting US stealth aircraft may also be installed, according to reports.

Fu Ying, former Chinese ambassador to Manila and current spokeswoman for China’s National People’s Congress, said it was the US that was sending “the most advanced aircraft and military vessels” to the South China Sea.

She warned that accusing China of militarizing the region could lead to a “miscalculation of the situation.”

Harris is asking the US Congress to approve investments in next-generation anti-surface missiles for the Navy to counter the growing capabilities of potential rivals. He also wants more attack submarines deployed in the region.

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