US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Huey D. Younger Jr.
US President Donald Trump may reverse an Obama administration by challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea with a handful of US Navy destroyers.
A report from the Navy Times cites US Navy officials as saying that ships from the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, currently headed to the Pacific, will carry out freedom of navigation operations near China’s artificial and militarized islands in the South China Sea.
The operations consist of simply sailing ships within 12 miles of land features in the South China Sea that China claims. The operations, as their name implies, completely observe all international law and exist mainly to assert the right of the US, or any nation, to sail in international waters.
But China will likely not be pleased. In May of 2016, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that while ships have a right to travel in international waters, military ships are a different matter. Lawrence Brennan, a former US Navy captain and an expert on maritime Law told Business Insider that not only are military freedom of navigation patrols but that the Chinese navy has passed through US territorial waters in the past.
According to Brennan, as long as navy ships “go through in normal mode, not exercising weapons, not painting targets with radar, and leave a gentle footprint,” these type of operations happen routinely and without incident.
Sources told the Navy Times that the US wants freedom of navigation patrols to happen so frequently that they become routine. From 2012 to October 2015, then-US President Barack Obama froze freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe handout via Reuters
The Navy Times report fits in with President Donald Trump’s announced intentions to check China as a growing world power, but falls short of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s January statement that the US would possibly “stop” China from accessing their artificial islands.
“It’s what we do. We say, ‘This is international water and we will proudly sail in it, steam in it, or fly over it to protect our right to do so and others’ rights, as well,” Bryan McGrath, a retired US Navy captain, told the Navy Times.
China has repeatedly asserted that the US has no part in the South China Sea dispute, where six nations have overlapping claims to waters that are home to $5 trillion in annual shipping, and rich in fishing and oil.
The US maintains that the US Navy has operated in the region for decades, and that it remains committed to making sure no one power establishes hegemony over an international waterway.
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick W. Menah Jr./US Navy