August 9, 2019
USS Ronald Reagan is anchored off the archipelago as South China Sea tensions simmer.
One of the United States’ biggest and most advanced warships, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), has arrived in Manila on Wednesday (Aug 7) for a routine port call that came weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte dared the United States to send its Seventh Fleet to help the Philippines against China over the South China Sea.
Before its stopover, the massive aircraft carrier sailed through the South China Sea, a disputed waterway that is a source of tension in the region and the center of a battle for influence between the US and China.
Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of Combined Task Force 70 and Carrier Strike Group Five, said the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is in Manila for its sailors to get a short break after spending weeks at sea.
But the visit also came weeks after Duterte challenged the United States to back the Philippines up and “gather their 7th Fleet in front of China.” The US 7th Fleet is the US Navy unit which covers the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
“I’m calling now America. I am invoking the RP-US pact, and I would like America to gather their US 7th Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now,” he said in an interview with Pastor Apollo Quiboloy in July.
Malacanang, however, clarified the President’s statement saying it was not to be taken seriously.
While the USS Ronald Reagan may not be the entire 7th Fleet, it represented the largest American naval presence in the Philippines after several months. This is the first US carrier to visit the Philippines after more than a year.
The USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, is home to 5,000 crewmen and more than 70 aircraft. It is the only aircraft carrier that is forward-deployed to the Indo-Pacific region.
On Sunday (Aug 4) US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the US won’t “stand by idly while any one nation attempts to reshape the region to its favor at the expense of others, and we know our allies and partners will not either.”
He accused China of engaging in “destabilizing” behavior and a “disturbing pattern of aggressive” conduct in the Indo-Pacific region.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea based on its mythical nine-dash line, which had already been rejected by an international court in 2016. Its claims included territory also being claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
It has turned reefs and islands into military outposts, deployed warships and maritime militia to reinforce its territorial claims in the contested waterway.
While the US is not a claimant, it is making itself felt in the region to relay a message that it would not waver in supporting allies in its commitment to protect them against Chinese aggression.
“This region is huge for trade, 90 percent of trade goes over the maritime commons,” Thomas said.
He said it is in the interest of the US “that these maritime commons are free and open.”
“We have a navy that’s been a global navy and we operate in this area to maintain peace and security,” Thomas said.
US warships regularly ply the South China Sea Sea through freedom of navigation operations to show it doesn’t recognize Chinas’ ambitious claims.
“The beauty of this aircraft carrier is it provides a lot of security and stability in this region,” he added.
“It allows us to go out there and set an environment where these kinds of disputes can be solved in a peaceful manner. Our goal is to allow folks to be able to sail and operate wherever international law allows and I think we do that fairly effectively,” Thomas said.