Aboard a US aircraft carrier, a front-row seat to China tensions

An F/A-18 jet fighter taking off from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier during a maritime exercise between the U.S. and Japan in the Philippine Sea last month. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
An F/A-18 jet fighter taking off from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier during a maritime exercise between the U.S. and Japan in the Philippine Sea last month. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Summary

Both countries are staging naval exercises east of Taiwan, a vital region that would be prized in any East Asia conflict.

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON—During recent exercises in the Philippine Sea, U.S. jet fighters screamed into flight from the USS Carl Vinson as two Chinese intelligence-gathering ships lingered a few miles away.

Three months earlier in a nearby location, the Chinese military had its turn as its jet fighters took off and landed hundreds of times from a Chinese aircraft carrier, under the watchful eyes of U.S. ally Japan.

The Philippine Sea, a swath of the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan, was the site of a decisive aircraft carrier battle in World War II between the U.S. and Japan. Carriers are once again gathering here, and for good reason.

Control of the Philippine Sea would be prized in any conflict between China and the U.S. over Taiwan or the South China Sea. U.S. warships, troops and supplies deployed from bases on Guam or Hawaii would likely need to transit through the area.

China would want to interrupt those flows. In a full-scale conflict over Taiwan, it would seek to use the region to target Taiwanese military bases on the mountainous eastern side of the island or impose a blockade, military analysts say.

“Control of the Philippine Sea would be a critical military objective in any war in East Asia," said Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a U.S. think tank.

The recent U.S.-Japanese exercises in late January involved two U.S. aircraft carriers, nine additional American warships, F-35C and F/A-18 jet fighters, electronic-warfare jets and Japan’s Ise helicopter carrier, among other hardware.

In June 1944, the U.S. inflicted one of the final blows on the Imperial Japanese Navy by sinking two of its largest aircraft carriers, Taiho and Shokaku, and destroying hundreds of Japanese aircraft in the two-day Battle of the Philippine Sea.

The battle helped the U.S. capture the Mariana Islands including the island of Tinian, from which U.S. planes would later take off to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No U.S. ships were lost, and the American fleet delivered the knockout blow to the Japanese navy a few months later in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

The Philippine Sea is bordered by Taiwan and the Philippines to the west, Japan to the north and the Mariana Islands, including Guam, to the east, covering an area of over two million square miles. Most of the recent naval activity by China and the U.S. has been a few hundred miles east of Taiwan.

In mid-September last year, the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong and around two dozen other Chinese warships congregated in the area, according to authorities in Taiwan and Japan. A nearby Japanese destroyer reported Chinese jet fighters and helicopters taking off from and landing on the Shandong on Sept. 13 as five other Chinese warships sailed close by.

In similar exercises involving the Shandong and other Chinese warships in the same area during a nine-day period beginning Oct. 28, Chinese jet fighters made around 420 takeoffs and landings from the aircraft carrier, Japan’s Defense Ministry said.

“For China, it’s an opportunity to showcase its growing military confidence, an opportunity to train in a theater of core importance and an attempt at projecting the notion that U.S. military superiority shouldn’t be taken for granted," said Alessio Patalano, professor of war and strategy in East Asia at King’s College London.

After the most recent exercises, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said the Shandong and other warships had conducted combat training to “better safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests." Further exercises would be conducted on a regular basis, he said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The Chinese military has also stepped up activity in the Taiwan Strait with a higher tempo of air and naval sorties close to the island. Chinese jet fighters from the mainland can make it as far as the ocean east of Taiwan, aided by refueling aircraft, but they can operate more intensively in the region by using aircraft carriers in the Philippine Sea.

The U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, has long operated in the Philippine Sea, and the scale of training has ratcheted up recently. January’s exercises followed similar training in June and November last year, the first drills with several U.S. aircraft carriers in the region since 2021.

Speaking on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, Rear Adm. Carlos Sardiello, commander of the Vinson carrier strike group, called the drills a “great rehearsal opportunity" to “rapidly aggregate these large, capable, agile platforms in the Philippine Sea."

The Philippine Sea’s seabed plunges tens of thousands of feet from its western edge. The depth and the clear acoustic qualities of the sea make it an ideal environment for submarines, military analysts say.

Sardiello said undersea warfare was among the areas in which the USS Carl Vinson conducted training with Japan. Carrier strike groups sometimes include submarines, but the U.S. Navy doesn’t disclose submarine operations.

The Philippine Sea is also a significant thoroughfare for trade. If China dominates the region, it could put a chokehold on Japan and South Korea by controlling their access to shipments of oil and other fuels, analysts say.

As Sardiello and other navy leaders spoke on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, a Dongdiao-class Chinese surveillance ship, used for intercepting communications, could be seen a few miles away. Vinson crew members said another Chinese surveillance ship had been close by for the duration of the exercises.

China’s military represents a more formidable threat to U.S. aircraft carriers than Japan did in mid-1944, particularly with Beijing’s large arsenal of land-based missiles. The Pentagon said last year that China had “the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against ships, including aircraft carriers, out to the Western Pacific from mainland China."

Sardiello said U.S. carriers would continue to sail and train in the region despite their potential vulnerability to Chinese missiles.

“Our highly trained sailors can operate these complex, contested domains and be lethal and survivable, and execute the mission regardless of what the threat is," he said.

Write to Alastair Gale at alastair.gale@wsj.com

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