The chief of naval operations championed the strength of the John C. Stennis carrier strike group during a two-day visit to the Stennis in the South China Sea that concluded Monday.
Navy Adm. John Richardson is the second top defense official to land aboard the Stennis as tensions roil in the contested waters. He follows Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who visited the carrier in April.
The strike group deployed to the region in March, shortly following China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles to the contested Paracel Islands. The move was widely perceived as militarization of the region, against international policy norms.
“Everywhere I go right now people are talking to me and asking me about the South China Sea,” Richardson told sailors aboard the Stennis, according to a Navy news release.
“So much of the world’s trade travels through this ocean, one third of the total trade of the world,” he added. “Everybody is concerned about the stability, the peacefulness and prosperity of this region, as I talk to them I know that things are going to be okay because we have the John C. Stennis Strike Group on station here in the South China Sea.”
Richardson re-enlisted 21 sailors during his visit to the carrier, and praised the crew for its work during the deployment.
“When they talk about regional security, when they talk about stability, when they talk about maintaining the peace, when they talk about understanding the strategic implications of this part of the world, they’re talking about you,” he said, according to the release.
Of late, the focus of attention in the region has been the Scarborough Shoal, a small land mass claimed by the Philippines and seized by China in 2012.
Richardson told Reuters in March that the Navy was aware of Chinese activity in the region and was closely monitoring developments regarding a lawsuit the Philippines had filed against China.
“I think we see some surface ship activity and those sorts of things, survey type of activity, going on,” he told the outlet. “That’s an area of concern … a next possible area of reclamation.”
A decision by an international arbitration panel is expected soon, though Chinese foreign affairs director Rear Adm. Guan Youfei said June 4 that China doesn’t plan to honor the ruling.
On June 3, two days before Richardson’s visit to the carrier, Carter sternly rebuked China’s acts of hostility during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
“China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking,” Carter said, according to media reports. “Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”
Navy officials have said they plan to continue conducting “freedom of navigation operations” throughout the South China sea to protect trade interest and assert international transit rights.
The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, told an audience in Hawaii last month that $5.3 trillion in global annual trade depends on unimpeded access to shipping lanes in the South China Sea. Imports to and exports from the United States account for $1.2 trillion of that figure, he said.
–Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.
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