by Nat South for The Saker Blog

US carrier making waves on social media

A satellite image is doing the rounds of social media supposedly showing the US aircraft carrier ‘USS Ronald Reagan’ apparently ‘surrounded’ at a distance by at least seven Chinese warships (allegedly) on 24 September. More details are in this article by Sputnik. According to Chinese media, there were 5 Chinese warships, but this is all speculation as the ships are unidentified. The originator “Patient zero” is a user of Sina Weibo, with captions in Chinese. The image then was relayed across the world and MSM articles were written about the alleged incident. The US 7th Fleet has only responded in the vaguest of press statements, by saying that the carrier is “conducting routine operations”. The Chinese military, however, did respond in slightly different way, by stating that the US carrier was in the region to “flex the muscles and increase regional militarization”.

The actual numbers aren’t important, but the context and timing are noteworthy. Although the US Navy regularly transit through the South China Sea (SCS), often with missile cruisers and destroyers carrying out FONOPs, the image implies a terse naval face-off, judging by the speed of the ships. It is quite hard to tell what actually took place in this image and where is the actual location. Basic questions need to be asked, such as if the image was doctored, what day was it taken, how is it possible to ID the other unidentified ships?

The location was supposedly northeast of the Spratly Islands, other Chinese and OSINT sources suggest it is in the Philippine Sea. It is not likely that the aircraft carrier would be alone since it usually has some escorts on the surface and below the surface. Aircraft carriers are usually accompanied by other warships as a carrier group, CBG in naval parlance. (I know I sailed through one lot a decade ago in the Mediterranean, an epic event rendered difficult by them in darkened ship mode).

In the case of the ‘USS Ronald Reagan’, (Task Force 70), escorts are likely to include ‘USS Chancellorsville’, ‘USS Wayne E. Meyer’, ‘USS Gettysburg’ and ‘USS Antietam’, as well as USNS fleet oilers. The Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) headed by the ‘USS Boxer’ have just entered the region. The ‘USS William P. Lawrence’ was recently in the Philippine Sea.

If the incident is in the SCS, involving the Spratly Islands, this image tells an interesting story. An area that I personally studied over 20 years ago in the context of growing UNCLOS disputes and fisheries claims. A geopolitical hotspot with high stakes for access to lucrative seabed resources, (oil & gas). Here we are, moving on several decades, with a classic example of how territorial claims initially arising from “traditional fisheries areas” being progressively morphed into someone more worrying, by the addition of military might and pride, leading to increasing risks of clashes of this kind.

Briefly, the disputes are multifaceted and have been ongoing for many years. The issue of the South China Sea islands and reefs are numerous and complex, I won’t discuss these at length in this short analysis. Suffice to say, China has made long-standing claims over a number of these islands and regions, in what is commonly known as the 9 Dash Line, antagonising its ASEAN neighbours, ranging from Vietnam to Malaysia in the process. The US has weighed into these disputes with a strategy that it wants a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. Hence the numerous US Navy patrols in the air, sea and under the waves in the region.

Beijing is steadily claiming ownership and, in some areas, building military bases on man-made islands in order to substantiate the claims and establish zones of control over the EEZs. This situation is like a red rag to the proverbial bull in Washington, who have in response routinely send out warships on FONOPs as a means of short-lived escalations.

It isn’t the first time that an US aircraft carrier is sailing through the contested area of sea. But it worth to note the timing, in the run-up of the significantly huge celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic. Was is it the intention of the US to cause a storm in a teacup? The fact that the US Navy remains tight lipped indicates an operation aimed at the highest political levels in Beijing, not for public distraction or MSM entertainment.

It has to be remembered that the Sea China Sea is a globally strategic trading seaway, with an estimated one third of international maritime trade going through the SCS. The region is critical for China as the second largest economy in the world as 64% of its trade passes through the SCS, which ties closely to China’s overall economic and military security. China is dictating a bit-by-bit shift in the regional status quo, by establishing zones of control, something that Washington regards as Chinese aggression. Ultimately, this boils down to the US trying to prevent Chinese anti-area/access-denial (A2/AD) of a whole swath of the region.

There were reports in July of a naval cat and mouse game played out in the SCS region, where the Chinese carrier, ‘Liaoning’ was allegedly to have prevented the passage of the ‘USS Ronald Reagan’. One example is given with a map of supposed ship movements. Nothing further was confirmed as to whether this actually. Similarly, to the event in the satellite image, both navies do square up to each other at times, yet this is largely unreported or acknowledged officially. However, the Chinese coastguard presence is visible to show its sustained presence in the southern contested parts of the SCS.

This alleged incident in the SCS is really a twist of bittersweet irony, as this time last year the USS Ronald Reagan made a port call to Hong Kong.

This year, the world is witnessing escalation of wanton violence, destructive clashes and mob attacks in Hong Kong. What a shift in events as the US carrier visit was widely seen at the time as an easing of tensions between the U.S. and China. Not anymore.

This summer, the US Navy had originally scheduled 2 port calls to Hong Kong and in China in September, but these were cancelled by Beijing due to the protests and clashes.

The last ship to visit was in April. Given the ongoing tensions, escalating trade war and geopolitical provocations, maybe the port call was historic.

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