US brings nuclear presence into South China Sea after Indonesia fires at fishermen

The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) (L) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) with escorting warships in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images
The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) (L) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) with escorting warships in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images

The United States has flexed its muscle by parading two of its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the troubled South China Sea. Beijing has responded by making its own presence felt.

At least one Chinese ship tailed the USS John C. Stennis daily during its recent cruise through the South China Sea, although no incidents were reported.

The 100,000-ton Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis was joined in the South China Sea last week by the USS Ronald Reagan, allowing the two to carry out dual flight operations in international waters.

But even as the US and Chinese warships faced off, Indonesia was firing live ammunition near Chinese fishermen it says were 'stealing' fish from its waters.

It was the third such incident in recent months. The presence of the two carrier strike groups demonstrated the US's ability to operate tandem forces in the same area at the same time and afforded a rare opportunity for joint training "in a high end scenario," Rear Admiral John D. Alexander, commander of the Reagan carrier strike group, was quoted as saying on the website of the US 7th Fleet.

"We must take advantage of these opportunities to practice warfighting techniques that are required to prevail in modern naval operations," Alexander said.

The two aircraft carriers were supported by three guided missile cruisers and six destroyers.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Picture / US Navy
The Nimitz-class aircraft carriers USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). Picture / US Navy

Rear Admiral Marcus Hitchcock said that the Chinese have been a constant presence, but that he didn't know what ships had been shadowing the strike group or what their purpose for being there had been.

"We did see the (People's Liberation Army Navy) ships quite routinely throughout the South China Sea. As a matter of fact, we were in constant visual contact with at least one PLAN ship at any given time, 24-7," Hitchcock told reporters aboard the 100,000-ton Nimitz class carrier.

Hitchcock said interactions between the two navies were "safe, they were professional, we had a way to communicate effectively with each other and we didn't have any misunderstandings or miscalculations or anything like that."

"I don't find it much of a bother at all, to be honest," he said. "They maintain a respectful distance and they haven't really tried to interfere with any of our operations. So they're just a presence there and we've been able to conduct anything we've wanted to throughout the entire time."

Despite lingering suspicions, the two navies have been gradually expanding contacts and have agreed to protocols to avoid unintended incidents at sea.

A combined formation of aircraft from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9 pass in formation above the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. Photo / Getty Images
A combined formation of aircraft from Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 and Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9 pass in formation above the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. Photo / Getty Images

Indonesia last night defended opening fire on Chinese sailors as a policing action aimed at stopping illegal fishing.

AFP reports Beijing protested strongly over Friday's clash near Indonesia's Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, saying one Chinese fisherman was injured. The Indonesian navy insisted no one was hurt when it detained seven sailors on a Chinese-flagged vessel after firing warning shots.

Indonesia's navy said it intercepted 12 foreign vessels illegally fishing which fled as their warships approached.

Navy vessels pursued and fired several warning shots, until eventually a Chinese-flagged ship was stopped and boarded, it said.

It was the third such skirmish in recent months between Indonesia and China near the Natunas, which are west of Borneo, as tensions rise between Beijing and several nations over its growing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Unlike some of its Southeast Asian neighbours, Indonesia does not dispute ownership of reefs or islets in the sea with China. But Beijing's claims to fishing rights near the Natunas and some 3000 kilometres from its mainland appear to overlap with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone around the islands.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who is leading a campaign to crack down on illegal fishing, defended the navy's actions.

"The Indonesian navy made the right move by maintaining the sovereignty of our seas," she tweeted. "The shooting was definitely according to procedure."

She added that "stealing fish is a crime. It is impossible that there is an agreement between countries that allows for stealing fish".

President Joko Widodo met with Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan on Monday following the clash and ordered him to defend Indonesia's sovereignty, presidential spokesman Johan Budi said.

"The president ordered him to defend Indonesia's territorial sovereignty that we have struggled to build up since our independence," he said.

- news.com.au

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