YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — About 10,000 sailors and Marines have set sail for the Western Pacific during the past month, gearing up for multinational exercises and port visits that are as much about reassuring allies as they are about naval tactics.
The scale of the deployments isn’t unprecedented, but it is a busy time in a part of the world that’s already well-known within the Navy for its grinding operations tempo.
On June 26, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and its 5,500 personnel departed Yokosuka. They will meet up at various points with six surface ships within its strike group, with a submarine presence likely lurking nearby.
Two weeks earlier, the amphibious USS Bonhomme Richard and its strike group departed Sasebo Naval Base, and it has since embarked the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
The deployments are all part of routine plans developed over the past year, 7th Fleet officials told Stars and Stripes.
They also show an eagerness of nations in the region to partner with the United States in light of China’s growing might — a reason the deployments are considered routine, according to Asia-Pacific analysts.
While some positive signs have recently emerged in the U.S.-China military relationship, Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over international waters and its increasingly sophisticated weaponry mean that tensions in the region aren’t going away anytime soon.
Japan, Australia, South Korea and much of Southeast Asia have either recently participated in exercises with the U.S. or are planning to this summer. Such allies are intent on finding ways to counter China’s military modernization — with America’s help.
The U.S. updates its “C4I” — a host of command, intelligence and technological procedures — every year or two, and sea exercises help allies keep pace with the changes, said Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, who commands the USS George Washington Strike Group and the 7th Fleet’s battle force.
While the U.S. has the most to offer in terms of capabilities, the Navy also learns from its partners. Montgomery cited South Korea’s special forces as an example.
“They’re very good at taking on and defeating small craft,” Montgomery said. “That’s not something we do every day.”
For smaller nations whose claims to islands in the South China Sea conflict with Beijing’s, military exercises with the U.S. are among the few tools they have to defend their perceived borders while maintaining vital economic links with China.
“All of these nations don’t want to be put in a position of having to choose,” said professor Jeff Kingston, Asian studies director at Temple University, Japan. “Having the U.S. as a counterweight to the Chinese presence is welcome.”
China’s ongoing conflicts over islands — along with their nearby fishing and energy rights — with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan sometimes boil over into standoffs.
For example, China has been turning away Philippine ships from Scarborough Shoal, about 140 miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, ever since a Philippine ship tried to arrest several Chinese for fishing illegally last year.
Since February, there have been few incidents among Chinese ships and other nations in the East and South China seas. However, fishing season in the South China Sea is peaking, and Philippine and Chinese officials exchanged bellicose words last week over more disputed shoals.
“It’s a positive sign that the more threatening activities have abated somewhat,” Kingston said. “But we’re getting into the summer season, where typically incidents have flared up. I don’t think we’re home free yet.”
Calmer waters ahead?
Despite troubles with allies and wariness of China’s advances in anti-carrier missiles, at-sea relations between the U.S. and China appear more relaxed than they have been in recent years.
Tensions peaked when Chinese vessels surrounded and harassed the USNS Impeccable in 2009.
A year later, Chinese ships — sometimes marked as fishing vessels — shadowed U.S. ships and occasionally blocked their navigation lanes, 7th Fleet sailors have told Stars and Stripes.
There have been no public reports of China using such tactics on U.S. ships recently.
“I have not seen any spikes or signs of [unprofessionalism] in those interactions,” Montgomery, said, citing ship reports from the first six months of his command.
At the time of the 2009 incident, China justified its conduct by citing the Impeccable’s surveillance activities within China’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Such economic zones compose about one-third of the world’s waters and are considered by most nations to be international waters, where any ship can navigate and monitor activity.
In June, China signaled that its views may be changing with an admission that undercut its prior stance on Impeccable’s activities.
A Chinese officer told Adm. Samuel Locklear, Pacific Command chief, at a Singapore gathering of defense officials that China’s navy had conducted missions within the U.S. exclusive economic zones off Guam and Hawaii, confirming an earlier report to Congress.
“We encourage their ability to do that,” Locklear said, according to a Financial Times report.
Another sign of warming came via the informal summit last month between President Barack Obama and Premier Xi Jinping. It was widely hailed as setting the right tone between the two countries, though Xi maintained all of Beijing’s territorial claims.
“If you take a broad view of all military-to-military relations the U.S. has with China, they tend to make the most progress in periods after high-level meetings,” said Carlyle Thayer, an American author and professor emeritus at Australia’s University of New South Wales.
On Monday, China entered into talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a binding code of conduct that would regulate ship activity in the South China Sea. ASEAN and the United States have long pursued China’s participation in such talks.
China’s accession to such an agreement would be welcome to U.S. sailors hoping for calm, uneventful deployments in the coming years. However, nothing is a given when it comes to China’s ambitions and responses to perceived slights to its sovereignty.
A U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which China claims as its own, an exercise or a surveillance mission that China deems provocative are all potential future flashpoints, Thayer said.
“Chinese policies are reactive, anyway," Thayer said. "Chinese sovereignty is a raw nerve, and anytime it’s touched, it will get a reaction.”