The Navy is not cutting back on warship passages or aerial and naval reconnaissance operations in the South China Sea, according to a spokeswoman for the Pacific Fleet, despite new claims by Chinese press outlets.
The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet People’s Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the country’s military, reported Dec. 7 that “the number of U.S. ships and reconnaissance aircraft to carry out provocative operations in the South China Sea has decreased significantly recently.”
But Lt. Cmdr. Marissa Huhmann, spokeswoman for the Pacific Fleet, said the report was not true.
“Our ships operate routinely and at a time and place of our choosing,” she said. “To say our operations have decreased would be inaccurate.”
Two Navy reconnaissance ships recently conducted surveys in the sea prior to the visit in late November of the USS Chancellorsville, a guided missile cruiser, according to U.S. defense officials.
The reconnaissance ships were identified as the oceanographic survey ship USNS Henson, and a Victorious-class ocean surveillance ship, USNS Loyal. The visits were first disclosed Dec. 5 by the Chinese outlet “The Paper,” published by the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Communist Party, and later confirmed by U.S. officials.
The ships were spotted near the Chinese south of Hainan Island, in the northern part of the sea, and the northeast of the Paracel Islands, also in the northern part, The Paper stated.
The operations were said to be part of a new U.S. program called Indo-Pacific Maritime Situational Awareness System, part of a global monitoring system.
The PLA Daily report claimed the recent naval actions were unlike larger past deployments of U.S. warships. Instead, the United States “merely sent an old cruiser and two reconnaissance ships to the South China Sea to perform operations,” the military outlet said. China has repeatedly tried to raise doubts with U.S. allies in the region about Washington’s determination to stay in the region and match Beijing’s growing military reach.
A Navy spokesman said the two reconnaissance ships “are operating in the Western Pacific on routine operations.”
The Navy on Nov. 29 denied Chinese claims that the Chancellorsville was forced out of the South China Sea by Chinese warships. China in the past has harassed Navy surveillance ships, saying they were infringing on Chinese sovereign waters.
In 2009, five Chinese vessels surrounded the USNS Impeccable, a survey ship, 75 miles south of Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The location suggests the Navy ship was conducting hydrographic surveys related to China’s Yulin ballistic submarine base at the time.
The Chinese ordered the Impeccable to leave the area.
A year later, the USNS Victorious was harassed by Chinese vessels in the Yellow Sea.
Both ships were operating in international waters, U.S. officials insisted.
The exchange comes as the Biden administration appears to be seeking better relations with Beijing following the meeting between President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. A group of senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats met Sunday and Monday in Langfang, a city near Beijing, and included Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Laura Rosenberger, senior director for China at the White House National Security Council.
Chinese officials included Vice Foreign Minister Xie Fen.
The two sides conducted an extensive exchange of views on international and regional matters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters, including ways to avoid a conflict with China as part of the U.S. policy of seeking to compete with China. The war in Ukraine, threats to regional security and efforts to bring home U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in China also were discussed, according to a senior Biden administration official.
The Chinese reports said the two reconnaissance ships disguised their intelligence-gathering as “marine hydrological and measurement” operations. In addition to reconnaissance ships, more U.S. submarines are conducting underwater reconnaissance in the sea, the outlet stated, and in October, an Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft flew over in the sea, the outlet stated.
The surveillance ships appear to be part of a new U.S. and allied intelligence-gathering program announced in Tokyo in May called the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA).The initiative was announced at a meeting of the leaders of the so-called “Quad” nations – the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
According to a White House fact sheet on the initiative, the program will supply a “near-real-time, integrated, and cost-effective maritime domain awareness picture.”
“This initiative will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the fact sheet said.
Targets of the program will include “dark shipping” and other tactical-level activities like illicit rendezvous at sea.
Intelligence will be gathered using automatic identification systems on ships and radio-frequency technology and centered in the Information Fusion Center-Indian Ocean Region in India; the Information Fusion Center, based in Singapore; the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency in the Solomon Islands, and the Pacific Fusion Center, based in Vanuatu.
The Chinese claim that the U.S. was scaling back naval and aerial operations was echoed by the liberal activist group Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy. The group said in a statement Dec. 9 that China and the United States recently curtailed air and naval maneuvers near Taiwan.
China aggressively increased military operations around Taiwan with a large number of warplane flights and naval operations in response to the August visit to Taiwan by House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi.