Aircraft Carrier USS Carl Vinson Operating in the South China Sea

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON: With a deafening roar, the fighter jets catapulted off the US aircraft carrier and soared above the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), as its admiral vowed that the mighty ship’s presence was proof America still had regional clout.

SHOW OF FORCE An F-18 Hornet fighter jet prepares to land on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson as the carrier strike group takes part in a routine deployment mission in the South China Sea, one hour away from Manila. AFP PHOTO

“US presence matters,” Rear Admiral John Fuller told reporters on board the USS Carl Vinson. “I think it’s very clear that we are in the South China Sea. We are operating.”

The Carl Vinson, one of the US Navy’s longest-serving active carriers, is currently conducting what officials say is a routine mission through the hotly contested waters where years of island reclamation and military construction by Beijing has rattled regional nerves.

Following criticism that the Trump administration’s commitment to the Asian region has been distracted by North Korea, reporters were flown onto the ship Wednesday as it sailed through the sea.

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In a rapid series of take-offs and landings, F18 fighter jets roared off the deck, traveling from zero to 290 kilometers (180 miles) per hour in a dizzying two seconds.

Fuller, commander of the Carl Vinson Strike Group, said the 333-meter-long ship’s presence was a way to reassure allies.

“The nations in the Pacific are maritime nations,” he said. “They value stability … That’s exactly what we are here for. This is a very visible and tangible presence. The United States is here again.”

Strategic competitor

But the location of the strike group – which includes a carrier air wing and a guided-missile cruiser – is also a very direct message to China, whether US officials admit it or not.

Its voyage comes just a month after the Pentagon’s national defense strategy labeled China a “strategic competitor” that bullies its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea – believed to hold vast oil and gas deposits and through which $5 trillion in trade passes annually – and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the sea.

Manila has also protested China’s naming of five features in the Philippine Rise, also known as Benham Rise, a
vast undersea area within the Philippines’ continental shelf where the country holds sovereign rights.

Compared to the 11 active aircraft carriers in the US Navy, China boasts just one carrier.

But the rising Asian superpower has made no secret of its desire to build up its naval forces and become much more regionally assertive.

Last month Beijing said it had dispatched a warship to drive away a US missile destroyer which had “violated” its sovereignty by sailing close to a shoal in the South China Sea.

Major naval nations like the US, Britain and Australia are determined not to let China dictate who can enter the strategic waters.

They have pushed “freedom of navigation” operations in which naval vessels sail close to Chinese-claimed militarized islets in the South China Sea.

“We will follow what international rule says and we will respect (it), even if there are disputes there,” Fuller said.

Alliances shifting

The nuclear-powered USS Carl Vinson – the ship that took Osama Bin Laden’s body for burial at sea – began a regular deployment in the Western Pacific last month.

The carrier is home to 5,300 sailors, pilots, and other crew members as well as 72 aircraft.

Washington has announced plans for it to dock in Vietnam – a first for the communist nation which is rattled by China’s expansionism in the sea and has forged a growing alliance with its former foe the US.

Britain said on Tuesday it would sail its own warship from Australia through the South China Sea next month to assert freedom of navigation rights in support of the US approach.
But alliances are shifting.

The Philippines, a US treaty ally, was once the strongest critic of Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea, successfully winning a tribunal case in The Hague over their claims.

But it has changed course under President Rodrigo Duterte in a bid for billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment.

Duterte last week said it was not time to fight China over the row, adding the Philippines should “not meddle” with Washington and Beijing’s competition for superpower status.

In Wednesday’s trip, the USS Carl Vinson hosted top Duterte aides and key Philippine military officers.
Duterte’s communications secretary Martin Andanar described the carrier as “very impressive” and its equipment “massive.”

Asked if Manila welcomed US patrols in the disputed area, Andanar told reporters: “The United States has been a big brother of the Philippines, a military ally.”

PH won’t recognize renamed features

The Philippines was not consulted by the International Hydrographic Organization’s (IHO) Subcommittee on Undersea Feature Names (SCUFN) in renaming several features within the Philippine Rise as proposed by China, and will not recognize these names, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said on Thursday.

“The decision of the SCUFN was made without due consultation with the Philippine Government,” Esperon said in a statement.

His statement came days after maritime expert Jay Batongbacal posted on Facebook that Beijing had proposed names before the IHO for several undersea features of the Philippine Rise.

These features include four seamounts and one hill, which are the Jinghao and Tianbao Seamounts located some 70 nautical miles east of Cagayan province; the Haidonquing Seamount located further east at 190 nautical miles; and the Cuiqiao Hill and Jujiu Seamount that form central peaks.

According to Esperon, the renaming of Jinghao and Tianbao seamounts were adopted in October 2015 while the renaming of Jujiu seamount was approved in September 2016.

The approval of the proposals in naming underwater features, as a matter of procedure, are decided upon solely by the 12-member SCUFN countries: Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Brazil, Canada, Italy and Russia, Esperon explained.

Decisions made by the SCUFN are “deemed as final and non-appealable,” he noted.

“Because of the numerous complaints from many countries regarding its supposed arbitrary and unregulated decision-making process, the SCUFN decided to suspend last year the processing of pending proposals for the naming of undersea features worldwide,” Esperon said.

“Nonetheless our diplomatic posts have been alerted against such future applications in Philippine waters,” Esperon added.

Last month, Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol announced that President Duterte had ordered the Philippine Navy to “chase away” foreign vessels found within the Philippine Rise.

On June 12 last year, the military’s Northern Luzon Command hoisted a fiberglass Philippine flag within the Philippine Rise, to assert sovereignty over the territory.



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