The commander of one of the biggest American aircraft carriers vowed to protect freedom of navigation, as the ship arrived in Manila on Wednesday soon after the U.S. defense chief accused Beijing of destabilizing the region through expansionism in the South China Sea.
The USS Ronald Reagan anchored off the capital of the Philippines, an American defense ally of nearly 70 years that contended for the past three years with increased incursions by Chinese ships into territory claimed by Manila in the disputed waterway. The carrier sailed in with other ships in its strike group, including the guided-missile cruisers USS Chancellorsville and USS Antietam.
The presence of the only American aircraft carrier permanently stationed in the Indo-Pacific assures regional allies of unfettered navigation in the South China Sea, said Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, who commands Task Force 70, which includes the Ronald Reagan and is part of the Seventh Fleet. The Nimitz class-carrier is home-ported in Japan.
The goal of the fleet is to “allow folks to be able to sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Thomas told reporters aboard the carrier after it dropped anchor in Manila Bay.
“And I think we do that fairy effectively,” he said.
The aircraft carrier arrived days after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while traveling to Australia, blamed Beijing for aggressive behavior toward its smaller neighbors in the Pacific Ocean.
Under Washington’s National Defense Strategy, the Asia-Pacific region is “our priority theater” and China has shown a “disturbing pattern” of “destabilizing behavior,” the new American defense chief told reporters.
Aboard the Ronald Reagan, Thomas was asked whether the carrier would act if deployed under the Mutual Defense Treaty, a bilateral pact signed in 1951 in which the United States and the Philippines agreed to come to each other’s military aid if either country came under attack from an outside power.
“Clearly, we have a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines,” the admiral told reporters. “The ship is very capable and ready to respond to a wide range of operations, whether they be crises or whether they be a humanitarian disaster response. We’re certainly ready to do what our superiors tell us to do.”
He said the Manila port call was a “reflection of the longstanding relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines and underscores our strong support to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”
While the port call was considered a routine one, Thomas said it symbolized the “continuation of the relationship as treaty allies.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including areas close to its neighbors. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
The visit by the massive American ship came more than two weeks after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during a speech to congress, said there was little that he could do in the face of a build-up of Chinese activity in the maritime region.
Xi Jinping, his counterpart in Beijing, had warned him there could be trouble if Manila tried to enforce a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal, which threw out China’s claims to the entire sea region, Duterte told lawmakers on July 22.
The previous Philippine administration had a strained relationship with China, and took Beijing to the arbitration court after China illegally occupied a fishing ground west of Luzon Island. Duterte was president when the court issued its ruling, but he ignored it and tried to appease China by appearing to distance himself from the United States.
Duterte is to travel to China again later this month, his fifth visit there and the most by a Philippine leader to the Asian power. While details of the trip were not made available, presidential aides said Duterte would likely bring up the South China Sea issue.
Manila has filed diplomatic protests over the recent sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel by a Chinese trawler, and intelligence reports indicate that Chinese boats have been swarming near an island occupied by the Philippines in the sea.