USS Theodore Roosevelt returning to sea as China steps up coronavirus-era 'harassment' of US spy planes, ships

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The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt will return to sea later this week before Memorial Day after a coronavirus outbreak sidelined the massive warship for nearly two months after more than 1,000 sailors tested positive, Navy officials said Tuesday. Since heading into port, China appears to have taken advantage of the situation and ramped up its harassment of the U.S. military and its regional allies amid the global pandemic.

With the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier moored on the Pacific island of Guam, Chinese forces have “continued risky and escalatory behavior,” according to a senior Pentagon official. 

Since mid-March, about the same time the U.S. aircraft carrier pulled into Guam, Chinese fighter jets have harassed U.S. reconnaissance aircraft “at least nine times” in the South China Sea, according to Reed B. Werner, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Southeast Asia, in an interview with Fox News.

The provocative behavior has not been limited to the skies.

Werner also cited “harassment” of the Japan-based guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin last month near a Chinese aircraft carrier strike group that was patrolling through the South China Sea.  A Chinese escort ship maneuvered in an “unsafe and unprofessional way” without being specific.

The recent confrontations between the Chinese and American militaries have not been previously reported.

“We do find the current trend line very worrisome,” Werner said, adding that he did not know if the harassment since mid-March represented an uptick.

The U.S. government has lodged formal complaints over the unsafe interactions as well as through “private channels” in one case, he added. 

“We’ve made démarches... on a regular basis,” Werner said.

He elaborated, “We continue to see Chinese destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea” during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. “As countries are focused inward, China continues to push forward.”

This included harassment of U.S. allies in the region, including Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] member states, Werner added.  Last week, the U.S. Navy dispatched the littoral combat ship Gabrielle Giffords near an oil-and-gas platform off Malaysia after harassment by a Chinese government-owned research vessel and other warships.

China has been in discussions with ASEAN members about a “code of conduct” largely in the South China Sea. Werner says the Pentagon remains “skeptical” about China’s sincerity in the talks.

“They continue to intimidate and bully others,” he said, accusing Beijing of breaking other commitments in the past, including Chinese President Xi Jinping’s pledge at the White House in 2015 not to militarize the man-made islands in the South China Sea. Werner declined to discuss any recent developments on the islands, citing intelligence concerns.

Werner said Chinese fishing fleets also were heading “further and further south” in the past five years from the disputed Paracel island chain in the South China Sea down to the Natuna Islands near Malaysia and Indonesia.

Werner accused Beijing of “coercive, destabilizing, and commercially extractive” behavior in Southeast Asia.

Since the Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Guam, the U.S. Navy has sent more warships to the South China Sea near China’s contested islands and the Air Force has flown B-1 bombers overhead. The amphibious assault ship America recently joined the guided-missile cruiser Bunker Hill from the TR strike group as well as an Australian frigate for operations in the South China Sea.

Asked if the Pentagon would support Rep. Mac Thornberry’s plan to launch a new counter-China fund to the tune of $6 billion a year, similar to the European Deterrence Initiative established in 2014 to counter Russia, Werner said, “Right now, we are discussing this very issue within the department.” Thornberry, R-Texas, is the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

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In a recent report in The Times, U.S. defense officials were quoted anonymously as saying American forces would be “overwhelmed” by China in a sea battle and be unable to stop an invasion of Taiwan.

“Every simulation that has been conducted looking at the threat from China by 2030 have all ended up with defeat of the U.S.,” Bonnie Glaser of the Washington think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The Times.

“That is not a prevailing view in the department,” Werner said, pushing back on the reports, including a recent David Ignatius column in the Washington Post. Ignatius quoted a similar abysmal record in recent war games from a new book, “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare,” by Christian Brose, a former staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee and adviser to the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Werner acknowledged threats from China were “definitely not overblown.”

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China has held a large advantage over the U.S. military regarding ground-based intermediate-range missiles. One of the reasons the Trump administration pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, officials said, was because China was not party to the agreement between the U.S. and Russia.

Recently, the U.S. Marine Corps announced it would deploy ground-based missiles in the coming years to raise the stakes against Chinese aggression in the region and narrow the missile advantage. The new strategy has relied on the ability to deploy the land-based missiles near China on bases inside countries allied with the U.S.