ON BOARD THE USS GEORGE WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. aircraft carrier group cruised through the disputed South China Sea on Saturday in a show of American power in waters that are fast becoming a focal point of Washington’s strategic rivalry with Beijing.
Vietnamese security and government officials were flown onto the nuclear-powered USS George Washington ship, underlining the burgeoning military relationship between the former enemies. A small number of journalists were also invited to witness the display of maritime might in the oil-rich waters, which are home to islands disputed between China and the other smaller Asian nations facing the sea.
The visit will likely reassure Vietnam and the Philippines of American support but could annoy China, whose growing economic and naval strength is leading to a greater assertiveness in pressing its claims there. The United States is building closer economic and military alliances with Vietnam and other nations in the region as part of a “pivot” away from the Middle East to Asia, a shift in large part meant to counter rising Chinese influence.
The Vietnamese officials took photos of F-18 fighter jets taking off and landing on the ship’s 1,000-foot-long flight deck, met the captain and toured the hulking ship, which has more than 5,000 sailors on board.
The mission came a day after Beijing staged military exercises near islands in the nearby East China Sea it disputes with U.S ally Japan. Those tensions have flared in recent days.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, where the U.S. says it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in an area crossed by vital shipping lanes. Vietnam, the Philippines and several other Asian nations also claim parts of the sea. The disputes attracted little international interest until the late 1990s, when surveys indicated possible large oil reserves. American rivalry with China has given the disputes an extra dimension in recent years.
The U.S. Navy regularly patrols the Asia-Pacific region, conducting joint exercises with allies and training in the strategic region. The trip by the George Washington off the coast of Vietnam is its third in as many years. A second aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, has also conducting operations in the western Pacific region recently, according to the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Capt. Gregory Fenton said the mission was aimed in part at improving relations with Vietnam and ensuring the U.S. had free passage in the South China Sea.