- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2021

China’s military increased both warship and warplane missions in the South China where two U.S. aircraft carriers recently conducted operations to bolster international rights to the seas there, the commander of a carrier strike group in the region said.

“Far more numbers,” said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, in a briefing for reporters. “We’re seeing larger number of aircraft, larger number of ships available to the Chinese military and being utilized on a daily basis.”

Adm. Verissimo said the dual carrier operations mark the third time he has deployed to the sea since 2017, “and the number of forces we see in all domains has increased significantly.”

The two carriers, along with accompanying warships, include 10,000 sailors and Marines in a major show of force in the region, but the admiral said the passage was uneventful.

China‘s naval forces frequently confront U.S. warships in the South China Sea and order them to leave the area — orders that are ignored by the Navy in declaring the sea international waters.

China has claimed 90% of the South China Sea as its maritime territory, a claim rejected by an international tribunal several years ago.

The Roosevelt was joined this week by the carrier group led by the USS Nimitz for exercises aimed at bolstering regional allies and assuring the strategic waterway remains “free and open for all,” Adm. Verissimo told reporters, while adding that China‘s naval and air forces have increased sharply in recent years.

China began a major buildup of military forces in 2012 after taking over the disputed Scarborough Shoal that is claimed by the Philippines. The Obama administration did not respond to Philippine government requests for assistance under a mutual defense treaty. That set in motion a major island-building program by China that resulted in some 3,200 acres of new islands being formed within five years.

According to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military, China has deployed advanced YJ-12B anti-ship missiles on several outposts in the South China Sea. Additionally, China is augmenting littoral warfare vessels in both the South China Sea by deploying large numbers of Type 056 corvettes, designed for anti-submarine warfare, and Houbei-class wave-piercing catamarans patrol boats armed with guided missiles.

China test-fired two types of anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF-21D and the DF-26, into the South China Sea in August.

Rear Adm. James Kirk, commander of the Nimitz strike group, said his forces are aware of the potential danger the anti-ship ballistic missiles pose to U.S. carriers.

“We’re operating in a way that is respectful of those capabilities,” Adm. Kirk said. “We can defend our forces if we’re called upon to do that.”

More than 10,000 Chinese Marines also are deployed in the region for military operations.

In addition to People’s Liberation Army forces, China uses scores of ships and boats of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM).

“In the South China Sea, the PAFMM plays a major role in coercive activities to achieve [China‘s] political goals without fighting, part of broader Chinese military theory that sees confrontational operations short of war as an effective means of accomplishing political objectives,” the Pentagon report said.

The militia was involved in other incidents, including the 2009 harassment of the Navy surveillance ship Impeccable and a standoff in 2012 over Scarborough Reef.

The report said DF-21D and DF-26 missiles are “specifically designed to hold adversary aircraft carriers at risk” from long distances. China also is installing undersea monitoring systems that could improve the missiles’ accuracy.

The PLA also has a “robust and redundant” integrated air defenses, large numbers of jet fighters and surface-to-air missiles.

“The construction of new airfields and hangars on outposts in the South China Sea extends the possible operating areas of PLA aviation forces,” the report warned.

Adm. Verissimo said of the buildup: “It’s a significant increase in their operations and it has been, I would say, steadily increasing.”

Adm. Kirk said the dual carrier show of force supports regional security and demonstrates American resolve. Both warship groups are part of the Navy’s 7th Fleet.

“A consistent presence by the United States in support of freedom of navigation safeguards the norms and security for all nations in the Indo-Pacific,” Adm. Kirk said.

Adm. Verissimo declined to comment on news reports that China’s military had practiced conducting airstrikes against an aircraft carrier.

“I wouldn’t want to go into our operations and a Chinese simulated attack vs. a training mission,” he said.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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