SAN FRANCISCO -- The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Third Fleet said the fleet may help enforce freedom of navigation near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Vice Admiral Nora Tyson said Third Fleet, which is headquartered at Naval Base Point Loma in San Diego, and Seventh Fleet, based at U.S. Fleet Activities in Yokosuka, Japan, represent the sea service’s Pacific Fleet and would work together if ordered to enforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“Absolutely,” she said on Friday when asked whether vessels under her command could help carry out such a mission. “Third Fleet ships can easily operate in the Western Pacific … because they're all Navy ships and it's just a matter of who they're reporting to, so it really is somewhat transparent.”
Tyson was traveling here as part of the city’s 35th annual Fleet Week, a weeklong celebration of the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. Her comments came a day after news reports that the U.S. is considering sailing warships close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea to signal it doesn’t recognize the territorial claims over the area.
The Navy hasn't sailed or flown near the disputed territory since 2012, Defense Department officials testified last month.
The last time the service conducted a freedom of navigation operation within a dozen nautical miles of islands in the region was three years ago, David Shear, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Pentagon, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in May conducted patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands as the People's Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sailed close behind, according to information released by the Defense Department at the time.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, also during testimony said he disagreed with a Chinese admiral who was quoted as saying the South China Sea “belongs to China.”
"I agree that the South China Sea is no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's," Harris said at the time.
“I think that we must exercise our freedom of navigation throughout the region and part of our responsibility as Pacific Command commander is to give options to the president and the secretary," he added, referring to President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. "And those options are being considered and will execute as directed by the president and the secretary."
Tyson, the Third Fleet commander, said she’s working with Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the head of Seventh Fleet, under the direction of Adm. Scott Swift, in charge of Pacific Fleet, to operate ships beyond the International Date Line and blur that line of demarcation between the two areas of responsibility.
“We are working together every day to ensure that we complement each other. We understand the Pacific Ocean and what our roles are and how we can complement each other in any scenario,” she said. “Likewise, Third Fleet is partnering with Seventh fleet to ensure that if we had a more complicated scenario, if you will, that we could work together very easily.”
Chinese navy ships last month were spotted off the coast of Alaska for the first time. The discovery came the same week China held a massive military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender during World War II and highlighted its ambition to become a global military power.
A Pentagon official declined to identify the names of the vessels but said they included three combatant ships, one amphibious landing vessel and one replenishment ship. The ships were sailing in international waters in the Bering Sea and at one point reportedly came within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. coast.
When asked about the incident, Tyson said, “One of the most important things in the world is free flow commerce -- that's what keeps the world going. It's about ensuring that countries around the world have a stable environment, a stable economy, and we depend on the free flow of commerce at sea , so we practice freedom of navigation.”
She added, “We're going to keep doing our job and ensure that free flow of commerce around the world for ourselves and for our partners.”
--Brendan McGarry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.