On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, President Trump spoke to the graduating class of the United States Naval Academy. By Sunday of Memorial Day weekend two U.S. Navy ships were making their way off the coast of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity with the South China Morning Post, said the Higgins guided-missile destroyer and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, came within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
The U.S. military vessels carried out maneuvering operations near Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody islands in the Paracel Islands, one of the officials said.
These maneuvers come just days after the Pentagon withdrew an invitation for China to attend the Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC). RIMPAC is the world’s largest maritime military exercise and is held bi-annually in Hawaii, usually in June and July. RIMPAC had served as an opportunity for the PLA and the U.S. military to engage with each other directly at both senior strategic and tactical levels — viewed by some to ease tensions and reduce risks of miscalculations — viewed by others as a great intelligence collection opportunity, especially for the Chinese who otherwise would not have access to the U.S. military in such close proximity.
Part of the reasoning for the Pentagon’s withdrawal of the invitation was in response to what it sees as Beijing’s militarization of islands in the disputed South China Sea, a strategic waterway claimed in large part by Beijing. Last weekend China’s air force landed bombers on islands in the sea as part of a training exercise, triggering concern from Vietnam and the Philippines. While this operation had been planned months in advance, and similar operations have become routine, it comes at a particularly sensitive time and the Chinese will no doubt paint it as an act of U.S. aggression.
These types of operations are known as “freedom of navigation” with naysayers claiming that they have little impact on Chinese behavior and are largely symbolic. The U.S. military has a long-standing position that these maneuvers are carried out throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies, and that they are separate from political considerations. But the Pentagon has also said it would like to see more international participation in freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea — likely as a show of force against China’s unabashed buildup in the region.
Featured image: Guided missile destroyer USS Howard (DDG-83) prepares to come along side the Military Sealift Command (MSC) fast combat support ship USNS Rainier (T-AOE-7) for a scheduled replenishment at sea (RAS). Howard and Rainier are currently participating in a scheduled deployment with the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group (CSG). U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Richard R. Waite (RELEASED) [Public Domain]