US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s just concluded Asian tour came amid fast spiking tensions in the South China Sea, with China deploying its newest aircraft carrier while warning Washington against “flexing its muscles” in the contested waters.
Beijing’s threat came in response to the US Navy’s deployment of two littoral combat ships, namely the Independence-class USS Gabrielle Giffords and USS Montgomery, officially launched to “bolster attack strength in the South China Sea” and ensure China will “abide by international rules.”
Both powers have expanded their naval presence and deployed an ever larger armada of military assets to regional waters, whether through conducting joint exercises with regional allies or unilateral deployment of their most advanced warships.
The US has recently made more regular freedom of navigation operations in the contested sea, deployments which have been more expansive in scope and featured increasingly more attack-oriented frigates and littoral combat ships.
Earlier this month, China deployed its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, known as the Type 001A, through the Taiwan Straits as part of “scientific trials and routine training” in a “normal arrangement”, according to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) spokesman Cheng Dewei.
Responding to China’s expanding naval footprint in the area, the US Navy deployed the USS Gabrielle Giffords littoral combat ship, stationed in Singapore’s Changi naval base, on a freedom of navigation mission on November 15, while the USS Montgomery joined two Australian warships for naval exercises between November 6 and 12.
The Pentagon chief said in Manila that the US “rejects attempts by any nation to use coercion or intimidation to advance international interests at the expense of others”, calling on regional states to assert their rights and place China “on the right path.”
“The clear signal that we’re trying to send is not that we oppose China per se, but that we all stand for international rules and international laws and that we think China should abide by them as well,” Esper said, as his Pentagon looked to allay doubts about Trump’s commitment and focus on the region’s security.