The Navy Times has reported that the United States has deployed a carrier strike group to the South China Sea, a move immediately condemned by China as a contribution to militarization and tension in the region.
The carrier John C. Stennis, destroyers Stockdale and Chung-Hoon, cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay, plus the Seventh Fleet's command ship Blue Ridge, got under way recently for the disputed area. The Blue Ridge will reportedly call in the Philippines.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regularly scheduled press briefing Friday that China “firmly opposes relevant countries' behaviors that threaten and undermine sovereignty and security of coastal states under the pretext of navigation and over-flight freedom.”
The Chinese government has been investing heavily in land reclamation projects in the Spratly Islands, adding runways and what experts say are long-range radar installations on their new claims. The People's Liberation Army has also recently deployed an air defense missile system on Woody Island in the Paracels, a measure that some U.S. officials describe as a clear sign of militarization.
“When they put their advanced missile systems on the Paracels, and when they build three 10,000-foot runways in the Spratlys on the basis that they’ve reclaimed – when they do all of that, they’re changing the operational landscape in the South China Sea . . . Short of war, they can rise to the level of having tactical control of the waterways of the South China Sea,” said U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command.
Beijing has recently accused Admiral Harris of “sowing discord,” suggesting that “he is finding an excuse for US maritime hegemony and muscle-flexing on the sea.”
The U.S. Navy's Pacific Command described the patrol as nothing out of the ordinary.
"Our ships and aircraft operate routinely throughout the Western Pacific — including the South China Sea — and have for decades," said spokesman Commander Clay Doss.
The Navy's photo-sharing account on flickr described the mission as “a regulary scheduled Seventh Fleet deployment.”
The move follows two recent freedom of navigation patrols by American guided missile destroyers through waters claimed by China. Chinese authorities have condemned the transits as provocative, but Washington says that they will continue on a regular basis.