US naval buildup in Indo-Pacific seen as warning to China

200610-N-ML137-1057 PHILIPPINE SEA (June 10, 2020) In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the "Eagles" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115 practices a touch-and-go maneuver on the flight deck of the Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) on June 10, 2020, in the Philippine Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Samantha Jetzer/U.S. Navy via AP)
200610-N-ML137-1057 PHILIPPINE SEA (June 10, 2020) In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the "Eagles" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 115 practices a touch-and-go maneuver on the flight deck of the Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) on June 10, 2020, in the Philippine Sea. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Samantha Jetzer/U.S. Navy via AP)

WASHINGTON – For the first time in nearly three years, three American aircraft carriers are patrolling the Indo-Pacific waters, a massive show of naval force in a region roiled by spiking tensions between the U.S. and China and a sign that the Navy has bounced back from the worst days of the coronavirus outbreak.

The unusual simultaneous appearance of the three warships, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircraft, comes as the U.S. escalates criticism of Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong and its campaign to militarize human-made islands in the South China Sea.

“There have been some indications in Chinese writings that the United States was hit hard by COVID-19, that military preparedness was low, so perhaps there is an effort by the United States to signal China that it should not miscalculate,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Chinese will definitely portray this as an example of U.S. provocations, and as evidence that the U.S. is a source of instability in the region."

President Donald Trump, criticized for his own handling of the coronavirus outbreak, has condemned China for what he sees as a failure to adequately warn the world about the COVID-19 threat. The administration has also moved to ban Chinese graduate students and researchers with links to the People’s Liberation Army or other security services from the United States.

The convergence of three carrier strike groups in the region is unusual because of the limited number of carriers and the fact that they are often cycling through repair schedules, port visits, training or deployments to other parts of the world. This week, however, Navy commanders said they were able to take advantage of the timing, particularly during this period of great power competition with China.

The U.S. national defense strategy cites China as a top security concern, and Pentagon leaders have been working to shift more resources and military assets to the region to battle what they see is Beijing's growing economic influence and military might.

“The ability to be present in a strong way is part of the competition. And as I always tell my guys here, you’ve got to be present to win when you’re competing,” said Rear Adm. Stephen Koehler, director of operations at Indo-Pacific Command. “Carriers and carrier strike groups writ large are phenomenal symbols of American naval power. I really am pretty fired up that we’ve got three of them at the moment.”

Speaking to The Associated Press from his office in Hawaii, Koehler said China is slowly and methodically building up military outposts in the South China Sea, putting missile and electronic warfare systems on them. The U.S. and other allies and partners in the region have beefed up operations near the human-made islands to try to blunt China's development, but none of that has appeared to work.