Washington has sent an aircraft carrier strike group and a landing helicopter dock group to the South China Sea where the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong exercised two weeks ago, putting the area in yet another level of tension.
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the Wasp-class USS Essex, as well as their respective escorting vessels, entered the southern waters of the South China Sea on Tuesday evening this week, according to Beijing-based think tank South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, which monitors open-source ship tracking information.
The US Navy has yet to announce its plans but the two major attack groups are expected to join forces and probably operate together.
The US government also the laid out its most detailed case yet against China’s “unlawful” claims in the South China Sea, rejecting both the geographic and historic bases for its vast, divisive map.
In a 47-page research paper, the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs said the People’s Republic of China had no basis under international law for claims that have put Beijing on a collision course with the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
The latest deployments come just a few weeks after the PLA Navy held simultaneous drills for its two aircraft carriers, one in the South China Sea.
It is also only three weeks ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Lunar New Year, when China will be hoping to avoid a build-up of military tensions in its backyard.
According to the US Navy, the Carl Vinson strike group last week was in the Celebes Sea — between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia — with nine plane squadrons from Carrier Air Wing 2 onboard, including one stealth fighter F-35C and its team.
The group includes the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain and the Destroyer Squadron 1, consisting of five Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers.
The USS Essex amphibious ready group (ARG) left its three-and-a-half-month mission in the Middle East last week and crossed the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean over the weekend on its way to the exercise.
The USS Essex is accompanied by the amphibious transport dock USS Portland and amphibious dock landing ship USS Pearl Harbor. The 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and Amphibious Squadron is also taking part.
According to the research paper, “The overall effect of these maritime claims is that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) unlawfully claims sovereignty or some form of exclusive jurisdiction over most of the South China Sea.”
“These claims gravely undermine the rule of law in the oceans and numerous universally recognized provisions of international law reflected in the Convention,” it said, referring to a 1982 UN treaty on the law of the sea ratified by China – but not the United States.
Releasing the study, a State Department statement called again on Beijing “to cease its unlawful and coercive activities in the South China Sea.”
China hit back on Thursday, claiming the report “distorts international law and misleads the public.”
“The US refuses to sign the treaty but portrays itself as a judge and wantonly distorts the treaty,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin at a briefing.
“In seeking its own selfish interests it uses multiple standards to carry out political manipulation.”
The paper is an update of a 2014 study that similarly disputed the so-called “nine-dash line” that forms the basis for much of Beijing’s stance.
In 2016, an international court sided with the Philippines in its complaints over China’s claims.
Beijing replied by offering new justifications, including saying that China had “historic rights” over the area.
The State Department paper said that such historical-based claims had “no legal basis” and that China had not offered specifics.
It also took issue with geographic justifications for China’s claims, saying that more than 100 features Beijing highlights in the South China Sea are submerged by water during high tide and therefore are “beyond the lawful limits of any state’s territorial sea.”
Beijing cites such geographic features to claim four “island groups,” which the State Department study said did not meet criteria for baselines under the UN convention.
The report was issued as the United States increasingly challenges China on the global stage, identifying the rising communist power as its chief long-term threat.
The South China Sea is home to valuable oil and gas deposits and shipping lanes, and Beijing’s neighbors have frequently voiced concern that their giant neighbor was seeking to expand its reach.