The Navy has deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan from its home port in Japan, to help with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer. The move will leave the Asia Pacific region without a U.S. carrier presence patrolling the seas.
Another aircraft carrier, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, normally deployed in the Middle East region, will be heading back to its home port in Norfolk, Virginia at a time when its deployment at sea will be at its limits. This has spurred the Navy to replace its normal presence in the Middle East region with the USS Ronald Reagan.
The lack of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific region signals a strain on naval resources in an area that has seen rising tensions between China and its neighbors. Last summer, while the pandemic was underway, China had several military clashes with surrounding countries. The confrontations included a border clash with India, military aircraft flights within Taiwanese airspace, and submarine activity near Japan on top of the ongoing disputes within the South China Sea’s territory.
U.S. military activity in the South China Sea was recorded at its highest in years during 2020 and 2019 after it was confirmed the passage of ten U.S. warships in the region compared to five in each of the two prior years.
China is the dominant presence in the South China Sea compared to its neighbors, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan, who look to the U.S. as an ally for support. During the time of these conflicts, China announced it would be increasing its military budget by 6.6 percent, even as the economy had slowed due to the global pandemic. During the National People’s Congress in May of 2020, Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, announced the country should, “step up preparations for military struggles, flexibly carry out actual military training, and comprehensively improve our military’s ability to carry out military missions.”
Although the projected military budget of China, including its recent increase, is only a quarter of the U.S. budget, it is believed they have more warships than the U.S. (335 versus 285) in addition to their two aircraft carriers.
Chinese military modernization
The Congressional Research Service reported its findings to Congress on the build up and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army during the past 25 years. In particular, the growing People’s Liberation Army Navy is seen as a challenge to U.S. dominance in the Asia Pacific area. Specifically the build up of anti-aircraft carrier missiles, warships, aircraft carriers, and use of fishing vessels in a strategic military capacity is of growing concern.
In addition to a growing military presence, the Chinese have stepped up efforts to conduct espionage against the U.S. military. Quartz reported in January 2020 of Chinese spies’ efforts to illegally photograph The Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, which monitors illicit trafficking at air and sea and holds weapons and ammunition.
The current U.S. administration’s military leadership has yet to be able to reach out to Beijing for high level communications regarding defense. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s attempts at meeting with China’s top military officials have gone unanswered as tensions between the U.S. and China have been heightened over issues ranging from human rights, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.
While the Asia Pacific region will be without a U.S. aircraft carrier after the exit of the USS Ronald Reagan this summer, Britain will be sending the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the area with hundreds of U.S. Marines and 10 F-35 fighter jets in tow.