US sends top warship to Asia Pacific

US sends top warship to Asia Pacific

The Thai navy keeps a watching brief as major powers vie for alliances in shifting South China Sea dispute.

The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan will soon replace the USS George Washington as the US Navy's forward deployed carrier at Yokosuka, Japan. (US Navy photo)
The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan will soon replace the USS George Washington as the US Navy's forward deployed carrier at Yokosuka, Japan. (US Navy photo)

Aircraft carriers are frequently employed by the United States for maritime security and military operations, and the USS Ronald Reagan, which will soon be deployed to Japan, is a flagship supercarrier for both combat and humanitarian missions.

Listed in the Nimitz-class of craft, a class of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in service with the US Navy and claimed to be the largest warships in the world, the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has been commissioned for operations including the Iraq war and "Operation Tomodachi", to deliver aid to Japan after the 2011 tsunami.

Named after the former US president Ronald Reagan, the ship is 330m long - greater than the height of the Eiffel tower in France, and equipped with a particularly effective armament system. Though currently stationed at her home port in San Diego, she will soon move to Yokosuka naval base in Japan.   

She will replace the USS George Washington at the base late this year, possibly signalling the US's stronger commitment to guarding the Asia Pacific, especially a close ally such as Japan. But the move is particularly conspicuous as tensions over the South China Sea peak.

According to a security source, the US's policy to "re-balance" power distribution in the region is culminating in a series of steps to forge new alliances and tighten up close relations with old allies, especially Japan and the Philippines. Replacing the older USS George Washington with the newer and highly capable USS Ronald Reagan could be interpreted as a warning to China over the sea dispute.

The USS Ronald Reagan, also known as Gipper, the former president's nickname from a movie in which he starred, is the second new supercarrier, while the USS George Washington has been commissioned since 1992. Captain Chris Bolt said the Reagan provides stability to the regions where she is stationed.

"Our logistic capability is pretty extensive, we carry a lot of supplies, we can go fast and we don't burn a lot of oil because of nuclear power," said Capt Bolt. "So we can go a long way in a short period of time."

The move points to the possibility the US is trying to pressure China over mainland reclamation efforts at sea.

But Rear Adm Patrick Piercey, commander of Carrier Strike Group 9, said the presence of US ships or aircraft carriers in the region only reflect the US commitment to ensure peace and stability.

He insisted the Reagan will stay uninvolved in the South China Sea disputes.

"We know many nations have different claims of sovereignty in particular over parts of the South China Sea. We are not there to say we support any particular country," he said, adding the conflict can be solved peacefully under international law.

"What we [the US] want to see is a peaceful resolution between nations which treat each other with respect."

The ship's deployment will help create an atmosphere conducive to closer economic ties, he added.

Meanwhile, as the rotating country coordinator for Asean-China relations, the Thai navy - under the command of Adm Kraisorn Chansuwanich - is keeping an eye on the US role in maritime security and the South China Sea disputes.

Though tensions there have yet to affect the region as a whole, the navy is monitoring the situation, Adm Kraisorn told the Bangkok Post. "The government's stance is neutral, so we will not take sides in the South China Sea issues. What we want to see is dispute resolution through negotiations and other peaceful means," he said.

However, a source from the navy admitted it is worried about non-traditional maritime security threats, including piracy, terrorism and armed confrontation.

"Although Thailand is not the claimant, we will be affected if the situation worsens. Armed confrontation is a future possibility," the source said, adding the navy wants to buy submarines to protect Thai territorial waters.

"The US wants to balance China's power in the region by supporting the claimants, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and it could lead to a proxy war," the source said. "The situation in this region will grow more tense as both China and the US try to win allies," the source said.

Former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is the best way to address sea disputes and find long term solutions. But the claimants need to relax their conditions if they want to find a peaceful solution, he said.

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