For the second time in as many weeks, the US Navy has partnered two of its aircraft carriers for joint drills off the Chinese coast. The muscle-flexing comes after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a stern rebuke to Beijing for its South China Sea claims.
Last week, the US Navy aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz sailed together in the Philippine Sea, but this week the Nimitz has been joined by the USS Ronald Reagan.
The move comes shortly after a slew of US intelligence and patrol aircraft were spotted traversing the South China Sea and Phillippine Sea, and just days after ASEAN sharply criticized Beijing for its claims to historic right to 90% of the hydrocarbon-rich South China Sea.
ASEAN Rebukes China, Calls for Peaceful Solution
During a tele-summit hosted by ASEAN chair country Vietnam on Saturday, the international group issued a statement reaffirming the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which lays out the basis by which nations can define their exclusive economic zones, which govern the special rights nations have to natural resources located there.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his support for the resolution, writing on Twitter on Saturday that “China cannot be allowed to treat the SCS [South China Sea] as its maritime empire.”
However, ASEAN’s statement placed “further stress on the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation. Pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS, while enhancing mutual trust and confidence” – hardly an endorsement of massive naval drills.
Washington has carefully positioned itself as the enforcer of freedom of the seas, regularly performing what it calls “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) through the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait and other contested waterways. Accordingly, the Navy’s news release branded the drills as advancing the “international rules-based order.”
US Offers Military Confrontation as Solution
“Only the US Navy can integrate a carrier strike force on this scale and consistently project power to protect freedom of the seas,” Rear Admiral James Kirk, commander of the carrier strike group led by the Nimitz, said in the Navy’s June 28 news release. “With more than 10,000 US Navy Sailors from across the world working together as one cohesive team, these operations are what keep us ready to respond to any contingency.”
Pentagon thinkers have identified the South China Sea as one of the “potential flashpoints” in what it sees as a new Cold War-type long-term strategic confrontation with China.
Washington has long sought to pry Southeast Asia away from Chinese influence with both carrot and stick. However, the ongoing US-China trade war has helped drive more of these developing nations toward Beijing, especially as they sign new deals to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure megaproject.