As usual one can ask who was responsible for the initial provocation: the show of U.S. naval power comes as Japan and the United States worry China is extending its influence into the Western Pacific with submarines and surface vessels as it pushes territorial claims in the neighboring South China Sea, expanding and building on islands. China has repeatedly announced it has been angered by what it views as provocative U.S. military patrols close to the islands. The United States says the patrols are to protect freedom of navigation.
This wasn’t the first recent flexing of Chinese naval muscle. Tokyo on Wednesday said a separate Chinese navy observation ship entered its territorial waters south of its southern Kyushu island. China said it was acting within the law and following the principle of freedom of navigation.
“There is a Chinese vessel about seven to ten miles away,” Captain Gregory C. Huffman, commander of the Stennis, told reporters aboard the carrier after it recovered its F-18 jet fighters taking part in the exercise. The Chinese ship had followed the U.S. vessel from the South China Sea, he added.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was unaware of the situation. Beijing views access to the Pacific as vital both as a supply line to the rest of the world’s oceans and for the projection of its naval power.
The 100,000-ton Stennis joined nine other naval ships including a Japanese helicopter carrier and Indian frigates in seas off the Okinawan island chain. Sub-hunting patrol planes launched from bases in Japan are also participating in the joint annual exercise dubbed Malabar.
As Reuters adds, the Stennis will sail apart from the other ships, acting as a “decoy” to draw it away from the eight-day naval exercise, a Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force officer said.
The concern here is that now that the South China Sea has become a hotbed of contention over who owns what, now the East China Sea appears to be also falling squarely in focus, a repeat of events from late 2013 when China and Japan engaged in an agry back and forth over territorial claims over the Senkaku islands.
Blocking China’s unfettered access to the Western Pacific are the 200 islands stretching from Japan’s main islands through the East China Sea to within 100 km (60 miles) of Taiwan. Japan is fortifying those islands with radar stations and anti-ship missile batteries.
By joining the drill, Japan is deepening alliances it hopes will help counter growing Chinese power. Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo recently jumped after a Chinese warship for the first time sailed within 24 miles (38 km) of contested islands in the East China Sea.
The outcrops known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China lie 220 km (137 miles) northeast of Taiwan.
Wary of China’s more assertive maritime role in the region, the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet plans to send more ships to East Asia to work alongside the Japan-based Seventh Fleet, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.
For India, the gathering is an chance to put on a show of force close to China’s eastern seaboard and signal its displeasure at increased Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean. India sent its naval contingent of four ships on a tour through the South China Sea with stops in the Philippines and Vietnam on their way to the exercise.
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.