Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Background Briefing: South China Sea: USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group

Background Briefing:
South China Sea: USS Carl
Vinson Carrier Strike Group
Carlyle A. Thayer
February 20, 2017
[client name deleted]
We are preparing an analysis on recent developments in the South China Sea and
request your assessment of the following issues:
Q1. How ‘routine’ are the recent patrols that the U.S. has embarked on? Is the force
used – an aircraft carrier with more than 60 aircraft, as well as a destroyer – larger
than normal?
ANSWER: The deployment of a U.S. Carrier Strike Group to the South China Sea is quite
routine. The U.S. Navy constantly conducts so-called “presence” patrols in the South
China Sea. U.S. Navy warships spent more than 700 days patrolling in the South China
Sea in 2015 and are estimated to have spent around 1,000 days patrolling in 2016. In
March 2016, for example, the USS Chancellorsville (CG-62), a Ticonderoga-class
guided-missile cruiser, patrolled waters near Mischief Reef while the USS John C.
Stennis Carrier Strike Group spent three months of its seven-month deployment to
the Western Pacific in the South China Sea during the first half of 2016. In June 2016,
the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier replaced the Stennis on patrol duties. During
the summer three U.S. destroyers, USS Stethem, USS Spruance and USS Momsen,
conducted independent patrols in the waters around the Spratly Islands. The two
carrier strike groups, Stennis and Reagan joined six warships to conduct a large-scale
exercise off the east coast of the Philippines.
Q2. Secretary of state Rex Tillerson has made some pretty testy remarks about the
South China Sea as of late. Are we to expect a more aggressive South China Sea policy
from the Trump Administration? Is it already more aggressive than Obama’s?
ANSWER: It is important to separate Tillerson’s response to a question at his
confirmation hearing from his later written submission to Senator Ben Cardin in
response to a number of questions including the South China Sea. Tillerson’s response
ran for 43 pages. With respect to the South China Sea Tillerson responded:
To expand on the discussion of U.S. policy options in the South China Sea, the
United States seeks peaceful resolution of disputes and does not take a position on
overlapping sovereignty claims, but the United States also does not recognize
China's excessive claims to the waters and airspace of the South China Sea. China
cannot be allowed to use its artificial islands to coerce its neighbors or limit
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freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea. The United States will
uphold freedom of navigation and overflight by continuing to fly, sail, and operate
wherever international law allows. If a contingency occurs, the United States and
its allies and partners must be capable of limiting China's access to and use of its
artificial islands to pose a threat to the United States or its allies and partners. The
United States must be willing to accept risk if it is to deter further destabilizing
actions and reassure allies and partners that the United States will stand with them
in upholding international rules and norms. If confirmed, I would look forward to
working with interagency partners to develop a whole-of-government approach to
deter further Chinese coercion and land reclamation as well as challenges to
freedom of navigation or overflight in the South China Sea.[1]
In other words, Tillerson backed off from his earlier comments that the U.S. should
block China’s access to its artificial islands. He added this important clarification, “If a
contingency occurs, the United States and its allies and partners must be capable of
limiting China's access to and use of its artificial islands to pose a threat to the United
States or its allies and partners (emphasis added).”
On 4 February 2017, James Mattis, speaking in Tokyo at the conclusion of his first
overseas visit as Defense Secretary, stated, “What we have to do is exhaust all efforts,
diplomatic efforts, to try and resolve this [South China Sea dispute] properly. Our
military stance should be one that reinforces our diplomats… At this time we do not
see any need for dramatic military moves at all.”
Q3. How does China appear to be reacting to all this? They have continued to build
installations, have made a few comments. But do you see a more defensive policy, or
is it business as usual?
ANSWER: China responded to the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal (July 12, 2016) that
heard the claims brought by the Philippines against China by building reinforced
hangars on each of its three airstrips on artificial islands. Each of the three artificial
islands is capable to housing 24 top of the line jet fighters plus four larger aircraft such
as tankers, Airborne Warning and Control airplanes, and nuclear capable bombers.
Then China installed Close In Weapon Systems (a modern form of Gattling gun
designed to shoot down low flying cruise missiles) and anti-aircraft guns on all seven
of its artificial islands. The Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana stated on
February 7th in interview with Agence France Presse, “If unopposed, China would likely
attempt to build an installation like the several bases Beijing has constructed in the
Spratly Island chain to the south of Scarborough. If we allow them, they will build.
That’s very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this
is so close to us.”
China has issued a series of comments intended to dissuade the Trump Administration
from interfering in the South China Sea by conducing further freedom of navigation
operational patrols and deploying Carrier Strike Groups. President Xi Jinping, in his
New Year’s address stated, “Chinese people will never allow anyone to get away with
[1] Rex Tillerson’s written responses to questions from ‘Senator Ben Cardin, Ranking Member’, undated,
making a great fuss about it [territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and
interests].” China has also announced that it is considering amending its Maritime
Traffic Safety Law (1984) to restrict foreign vessels in Chinese territorial waters, thus
challenging the regime of innocent passage in the United Nations Convention on the
Law of the Sea. Although these amendments are reportedly not due to take effect
until 2020 they would be a major challenge to present U.S. naval operations.
China has responded critically to reports that the United States is about to conduct
further freedom of navigation operational patrols. A Chinese government
spokesperson said on 15th February, “We urge the US not to take any actions that
challenge China’s sovereignty and security.”
So far it has been “business as usual” but this time the Trump Administration adds a
new level of uncertainty about what risks it will take.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike
Group,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, February 20, 2017. All background
briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the
mailing list type, UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key.
Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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