Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is set to visit a U.S. Navy carrier group on patrol in the South China Sea in a move that is sure to further inflame tensions with the Chinese government.
The purpose of the visit and the training exercises, conducted by the Stennis Carrier Strike Group and the Philippines, is to remind China that freedom of navigation in the region will remain the norm, even though China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory, Navy Times reports.
“We will continue to stand up for our safety and freedoms, for those of our friends and allies, and for the values, principles, and rules-based order that has benefited so many for so long,” Carter said in an announcement.
The U.S. has continued to sail within 12 nautical miles of disputed islands, and this latest exercises prompted a heated response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who said U.S. activities showed “who was the real promoter of the militarization of the South China Sea.”
Several other countries, including the Philippines, have competing claims and a passive aggressive conflict is slowly starting to develop. China relies on private fishing fleets to advance its claims, and Vietnam is now mirroring this strategy. In early April, Vietnam took control of a Chinese ship allegedly providing fuel to fishing ships.
The announcement of Carter’s visit comes just after reports that Navy Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, expressed outrage at a supposed gag order issued from the White House’s National Security Council in an effort to clamp down on his heated, public rhetoric. Harris has reportedly been pushing the Obama administration to consider a more aggressive response to China’s militarization of artificial islands.
Shortly after reports of Harris’ disputes with the administration, the Pentagon issued a statement saying emphatically no gag order exists. Harris himself blasted “sensationalist and irresponsible reporting,” which he said alleged a disconnect with the White House that simply does not exist.
While China initially said the islands were for civilian purposes, the People’s Liberation Army has quietly moved advanced radar systems, missiles and aircraft to the islands. China most recently sent 16 Shenyang J-11 fighter jets over to Woody Island on April 7 in seeming anticipation of U.S. moves. A U.S. defense official called the decision “unprecedented.”
Disputes over the South China Sea are rampant because about $5 trillion in trade moves through the area annually. There are also thought to be large deposits of oil and gas.
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