The United States Navy’s 7th Fleet said it is “fully aware” and remains “operationally ready” in response to a recent Chinese deployment of a carrier strike group to waters around U.S. allies Japan and Taiwan.
“We are fully aware of the PLA deployment, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet remains operationally ready,” said Navy Lt. Jim Adams, a U.S. Pacific Fleet (PacFleet) spokesperson.
On Saturday, Beijing sent the Liaoning through the Miyako Strait, located south of Japan and north of Taiwan, for only the third time in its history, according to Chinese state media reports. On Sunday, the Liaoning headed south and sailed through the Taiwan Strait amid a period of heightened Chinese tensions with Taiwan.
China has claimed the deployment was part of an annual plan, but its timing appeared aimed at sending a message: that China was capable of deploying a carrier strike group while U.S. aircraft carriers have been sidelined with coronavirus.
Global Times, a Chinese state-run tabloid, published a piece on Sunday with the headline, “Aircraft carrier group’s voyage shows PLA Navy’s great job in virus control: expert.” The article said:
Chinese analysts noted on Sunday that the Liaoning carrier group voyage came at a time when many foreign aircraft carriers were hit by COVID-19, rendering them unsuitable for deployment.
The USS Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Carl Vinson and Nimitz aircraft carriers all reported positive COVID-19 cases, media reports have said. The nuclear-powered flagship of the French navy, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, also reportedly has crew members who tested positive.
Through the voyage, the Liaoning showed that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has done a great job in the epidemic prevention and control work and COVID-19 epidemic has not had an impact on its deployment and operations, [senior adviser to the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association Xu Guangyu] said.
“It showed that the PLA can dispatch troops stationed anywhere at any time, with the troops always maintaining vigorous combat capabilities,” Xu said, “The Chinese people can always count on them.”
On Monday, the Global Times published an op-ed by Peking University Center for Maritime Strategy Studies Director Hu Bo, who wrote, “As the most powerful military force in the world, with the highest level of combat readiness, the US military’s failure to contain the virus has been disappointing.”
China’s boasting came after the highly publicized sidelining of the USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam, after coronavirus began to spread on the ship. Its commander, Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, pleaded for Navy leaders to get sailors off the ship faster in an alarming memo that leaked to the captain’s hometown paper.
Then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fretted that the memo exposed American vulnerabilities to adversaries.
“All the other ships that are out there in the Pacific that are now perhaps on higher standard of alert because our adversaries in the region think that one of our warships might be crippled, which it’s not,” he told Hugh Hewitt before he resigned.
“We may not be at war in a traditional sense, but we are in a major crisis both globally with this pandemic, but also with respect to authoritarian regimes who want to take us down, and they’re actively trying to do that. And so we have to be on guard and on alert,” he added.
U.S. Navy Captain (Ret.) William Toti echoed those sentiments in a recent op-ed in naval magazine Proceedings:
China has used economic pressure, military expansionism, and threats of violence to intimidate less powerful democratic nations. The only moderator to its vigorous expansionism has been a powerful U.S. and allied military presence in areas China is trying to influence, and the most visible manifestation of that military presence is an aircraft carrier strike group.
Taking an aircraft carrier off-line significantly undercuts the strategic posture in the region. … The fact that the letter was sent around in unclassified channels and leaked means the Chinese received it at the same time as the Pentagon. [emphasis added]
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. military leaders have warned adversaries to not try to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic. In the Pacific region, that means letting no provocation go unanswered.
On Friday, after a squadron of six Chinese jet fighters, early warning aircraft, and bombers flew southwest of Taiwan, the U.S. sent the destroyer USS Barry through the Taiwan Strait. PacFleet publicized the transit in a tweet:
PacFleet is also continuing exercises with allies in the region. On Friday and Saturday, the U.S. and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force exercised together in the East China Sea, according to Radio Free Asia.
Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said last week China is running a large-scale propaganda campaign to show that authoritarian regimes are more capable than Western democracies:
The most dangerous narrative to arise out of this global pandemic seems to me are the talking points that China is pushing around the world, that only authoritarian regimes have the resources and capabilities to deal with the problem. And while the outbreak will subside eventually, my concern is that this narrative may persist. This narrative serves only one purpose. To further undermine free and open societies around the world.
The propaganda has even been picked up by some American media outlets. A CNN reporter based in Hong Kong recently wrote a story that received widespread criticism for repeating its claims:
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley pushed back against the idea that the Navy’s readiness was affected by the coronavirus. He said Tuesday there are 90 ships at sea, including aircraft carriers Harry S. Truman and the Roosevelt.
He said the USS Nimitz — which is readying to deploy — had one sailor who tested positive, but he was out of state and not yet on the ship and a second sailor who had symptoms but was placed into isolation and not on the ship.
“All the other ships that are at sea are reporting zero at this time,” he said.
He said all ships’ crews are going into isolation for 14 days and being tested prior to setting sail.
“We’re doing the same thing with other critical components of the nuclear triad with the ICBMs, the bomber force, high-end tier 1 counter terrorism forces, and some of our rapid deployment reserve forces.”
“So there is a prioritization of the force for testing and quarantine to ensure that we have adequate capability and readiness to rapidly deploy if we need to for any given contingency,” he said.