In what may be the first of many to come, a U.S. Navy littoral combat ship, the USS Fort Worth, was sent to patrol the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
The event signals a growing shift in the region, as U.S. military leaders consider using aircraft and ships to challenge the Chinese regime’s claims to territory in the disputed South China Sea.
“Routine operations like the one Fort Worth just completed in the South China Sea will be the new normal as we welcome four LCSs to the region in the coming years,” said Capt. Fred Kacher, commodore, Destroyer Squadron 7, according to a U.S. Navy report.
He said the United States will deploy multiple Littoral combat ship to Southeast Asia, which “underscores the importance of this ‘region on the rise’ and the value persistent presence brings.”
The deployment is related to a recent agreement between the United States and the Philippines, which gives U.S. forces access to at least eight military bases for troop rotations. Two of the bases are near the Spratly Islands.
What’s significant about the development, however, is the timing.
The USS Fort Worth returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines on May 13, just a day after a U.S. officials told Wall Street Journal they are considering using aircraft and Navy ships to contest the Chinese regime’s territorial claims around its man-made islands in the region.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter is allegedly looking at options, according to Reuters. Among the proposals is sending U.S. military vehicles within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese regime’s man-made islands in the Spratly island chain.
The move isn’t as aggressive as it sounds. The United States conducted similar operations after the Chinese regime claimed an air defense zone over the East China Sea in November 2013. The United States ignored Chinese warnings and flew two B-52 bombers over the region.
The United States did so to challenge the Chinese regime’s largely unrecognized territorial claims, and to encourage other countries in the region to not give into the Chinese regime’s threats.
Recent developments seem to have the same intentions. An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters, “We are considering how to demonstrate freedom of navigation in an area that is critical to world trade.”
Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is crucial for trade and security for countries throughout the Asian region, according to the Pentagon’s 2015 annual report to congress on the Chinese regime’s military and security developments.
More than 80 percent of crude oil for Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan passes through the South China Sea, it states.
There are recent and growing concerns that the Chinese regime will start enforcing defensive zones around its man-made islands—and there were recent reports that it has already begun chasing Philippine aircraft out of the region.
The Spratly island chain is close to 1,000 miles south of China’s southernmost point in Hainan. Islands and reefs in the region are claimed by Chinese regime, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
The Chinese regime claims the territory through what it calls its “Nine-Dash Line,” which encompasses nearly the entire South China Sea and all islands in the Paracel and Spratly chains. It has raised additional concerns by building new islands and garrisoning these islands as though they were Chinese territory.