Tensions keep increasing amid the Eastern-Asian seas as Chinese Navy warships closely trailed the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group.

The U.S. Navy vessels were patrolling the recently disputed South China Sea. Rear Admiral Marcus Hitchcock confirmed that the Chinese ships have kept contact with the strike group at all times as they were first spotted in March.

Recently, ships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have also bordered Japanese waters, especially in the past two weeks. The ships approached Senkaku Islands, a group of inhabited islands under Japan’s control, located in the East China Sea.

USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) is 4.5 acres of sovereign United States territory capable of traveling to the furthest reaches of the globe. Image courtesy of Stennis.Navy

War games

The spy ship was spotted by Japanese forces around 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, in the proximity of Kuchinoeraby island, on the south of Japan. 90 minutes after being spotted, the spy ship left Japanese territorial waters.

The most likely reason behind PLAN’s spying operations is the development of the “Malabar war games,” described by the U.S. Navy as important and complex exercises directed towards the collaboration of the maritime armed forces of India, Japan, and the United States.

India is also in dispute with China regarding its territorial sea. China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and Brunei all have claims over the South China Sea.

According to Admiral Hitchcock, the spy ships remained at least three miles apart from the USS Stennis as it sailed international waters. It was notified by the USS Stennis’ officer in command, Captain Gregory Huffman, that although the PLAN’s ships were performing intelligence operations, they behaved normally and did not pose a threat to the development of the war games.

Chinese officials have responded by claiming that they acted along the rights of international maritime law. Yoshihide Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, stated that their nation would be protecting the Senkaku Islands “by any means,” even if China has chosen to proceed into “unilaterally escalating tensions.” The islands are claimed by both China and Taiwan, while Japan remains as their sovereign owner.

Although this type of endeavor would not be performed by the U.S. in the same manner, it is being deemed as an expected and coherent response, especially from China. The disputes are mainly due to China building artificial islands in the South China Sea since many of them have airstrips and military structures.

Why are these islands important?

The concern lies in the fact that China may use their armed presence on these isles to restrict navigation on both air and water on the South China Sea. Japan is responding by fortifying its 200 islands in the South China Sea, some of which are roughly 60 miles from Taiwan, with radar stations to fight back China’s operations.

In the case of the Senkaku Islands, its unexploited oil reserves and their critical geographical location make them an enclave worth fighting for. China has been claiming ownership of the islands since the 14th century, while Japan remained their controller from 1895 until the end of World War II. The United States held control of the islands until 1972,  and finally transferred control back to Japan thanks to the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

Source: ABC