Two US carries enter South China Sea after Chinese incursion

Matthew 24:6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.

Important Takeaways:

  • Navy sends two carriers to disputed South China Sea
  • Two Navy aircraft carrier strike groups are conducting operations in the disputed South China Sea amid heightened tensions over recent Chinese aerial incursions near Taiwan.
  • The carrier groups led by the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln are together practicing communications, anti-submarine warfare and air warfare drills and maritime interdiction operations in the strategic waterway that carries much of the world’s maritime commerce.

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U.S. warns China after South China Sea standoff with Philippines

(Reuters) – The United States on Friday warned China after a standoff in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines, saying it stood by Manila amid an “escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability.”

Beijing “should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” U.S. State Department Ned Price said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Philippines condemned “in strongest terms” the actions of three Chinese coast guard vessels that it said blocked and used water cannon on resupply boats headed towards a Philippine-occupied atoll in the South China Sea.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” Price said.

“The United States strongly believes that PRC (People’s Republic of China) actions asserting its expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims undermine peace and security in the region,” he added.

The incident came as U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed a range of issues in a three-hour video call.

(Reporting by Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Pentagon chief to nudge ties with Vietnam as human rights concerns linger

By Idrees Ali

HANOI (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will on Thursday look to nudge forward security ties with Vietnam that have been slowly deepening as both countries watch China’s activities in the South China Sea with growing alarm.

Despite growing military relations, more than four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, President Joe Biden’s administration has said there are limits to the relationship until Hanoi makes progress on human rights.

Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and has received U.S. military hardware, including coastguard cutters.

“(Vietnam) wants to know that the U.S. is going to remain engaged militarily, it’s going to continue its presence in the South China Sea,” said Greg Poling, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lieutenant General Vu Chien Thang, director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Tuesday the two sides would discuss the coronavirus and measures to “enhance maritime law enforcement capability.”

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they would also sign a “memorandum of understanding” for Harvard and Texas Tech University to create a database that would help Vietnamese search for those missing from the war.

On Sunday, the United States shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam, raising the amount given by the United States, via the global COVAX vaccine scheme, to 5 million doses.

Austin will meet his counterpart along with Vietnam’s president and prime minister.

Poling said there was a limit to how fast and far the Vietnamese were comfortable with deepening ties.

Experts say there are lingering concerns in Vietnam about Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.

“That really left a lot of countries standing at the altar for lack of a better way to put it, and especially Vietnam,” Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, said.

There are also limits to how far the United States is willing to deepen relations.

As important as Vietnam is in countering China, the United States has said it needs to improve its human rights record.

Vietnam has undergone sweeping economic reforms and social change in recent decades, but the ruling Communist Party retains a tight grip over media and tolerates little dissent.

In Singapore on Tuesday, Austin said the United States would always lead with its values.

“We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go and we don’t make any bones about that,” Austin said.

This month, Marc Knapper, Biden’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam vowed to boost security ties but said they could only reach their full potential if Hanoi made significant progress on human rights.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Philippines flags ‘incursions’ by nearly 300 Chinese militia boats

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines on Wednesday reported what it said were incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 287 maritime militia vessels from China, in a further sign of cracks reappearing in a relationship after a period of rapprochement.

“This incident along with continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to relevant agencies for the possible diplomatic actions,” the task force on the South China Sea said in a statement.

The Philippine foreign ministry has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a “swarming and threatening presence” of Chinese vessels in its EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.

The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through “sovereignty patrols,” in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under its pro-China president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Experts say China’s fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.

Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats.

Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines’ favor in a dispute with China was just a “piece of paper” that he could throw in the trash.

The tribunal also ruled that China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, had no legal basis.

Defense and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte’s comments “cancels-out” the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defense chiefs.

“We don’t have unity in messaging,” Custodio said. “That is encouraging China’s actions.”

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines tells China to mind its own business over maritime drills

MANILA (Reuters) -China has no business telling the Philippines what it can or cannot do within its waters, Manila’s defense ministry said on Wednesday, rejecting Beijing’s opposition to its ongoing coastguard exercises.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that claim, which Beijing bases on its old maps, was inconsistent with international law.

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Beijing had “no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises” in the South China Sea because “their claims… have no basis”.

The Philippine coastguard and fisheries bureau started maritime exercises on Saturday inside the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), following an announcement of a boosting of its presence to counter the “threatening” presence of Chinese boats.

Responding to the exercises, China’s foreign ministry on Monday said the Philippines should “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”.

The Philippine defense ministry in a statement responded saying: “China has no business telling the Philippines what it can and cannot do.”

The Philippines has taken a tough tone in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its EEZ, reviving tensions that had eased due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s embrace of Beijing.

While the Philippines owed China a “huge debt” of gratitude for many things, including free COVID-19 vaccines, Duterte said on Wednesday he would not compromise on his country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” Duterte said in a late night address. “But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin ordered the filing of another diplomatic protest, one of more than a dozen recently, this time over China’s rebuke.

“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague. But we must not fail to protest,” Locsin said in a Tweet.

The exercises took place near a Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago and at the heavily contested Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal in 2016 said was a traditional fishing spot for several countries.

Lorenzana said it was China that was complicating matters by illegally occupying reefs it turned into artificial islands.

“It is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave,” he said.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty and Alison Williams)

China says U.S. military in South China Sea not good for peace

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States often sends ships and aircraft into the South China Sea to “flex its muscles” and this is not good for peace, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, after a U.S. aircraft carrier group sailed into the disputed waterway.

The strategic South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flows each year, has long been a focus of contention between Beijing and Washington, with China particularly angered by U.S. military activity there.

The U.S. carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and accompanied by three warships, entered the waterway on Saturday to promote “freedom of the seas,” the U.S. military said, just days after Joe Biden became U.S. president..

“The United States frequently sends aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to flex its muscles,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters, responding to the U.S. mission.

“This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

China has repeatedly complained about U.S. Navy ships getting close to islands it occupies in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims.

The carrier group entered the South China Sea at the same time as Chinese-claimed Taiwan reported incursions by Chinese air force jets into the southwestern part of its air defense identification zone, prompting concern from Washington.

China has not commented on what its air force was doing, and Zhao referred questions to the defense ministry.

He reiterated China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that the United States should abide by the “one China” principle.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited a radar base in the north of the island on Monday, and praised its ability to track Chinese forces, her office said.

“From last year until now, our radar station has detected nearly 2,000 communist aircraft and more than 400 communist ships, allowing us to quickly monitor and drive them away, and fully guard the sea and airspace,” she told officers.

Taiwan’s defense ministry added that just a single Chinese aircraft flew into its defense zone on Monday, an anti-submarine Y-8 aircraft.

Biden’s new administration says the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid”.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the democratic island’s most important international backer and main arms supplier, to China’s anger.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

‘We’ve got your back’ – Trump advisor vows U.S. support in South China Sea

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien on Monday assured the Philippines and Vietnam, countries both locked in maritime rows with China, that Washington has their backs and would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.

“Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” said O’Brien, on a visit to the Philippines after concluding a trip to Vietnam on Sunday.

“I think when we send that message – that peace-through-strength message – is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace,” O’Brien said.

Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal regional opponents to what they see as Chinese overreach in the South China Sea and its disregard for boundaries outlined in international maritime law.

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim parts of it.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive claims, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there.

China maintains it is a force for peace in the region and sees the U.S. presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.

O’Brien, who led the turnover in Manila of $18 million worth of precision-guided munitions, said the United States stood with the Philippines in protecting its offshore resource entitlements.

“Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here,” he said.

“They don’t belong to some other country just because they may be bigger than the Philippines,” he said, adding: “That’s just wrong.”

His visit came more than a week after the Philippines suspended its scrapping of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States for a second time, as the treaty allies work on a long-term mutual defense arrangement.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if attacked in the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

Special Report: Pentagon’s latest salvo against China’s growing might – Cold War bombers

By David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – On July 21, two U.S Air Force B-1B bombers took off from Guam and headed west over the Pacific Ocean to the hotly contested South China Sea. The sleek jets made a low-level pass over the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escorting fleet, which was exercising nearby in the Philippines Sea, according to images released by the U.S. military.

The operation was part of the Trump administration’s intensifying challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party and its sweeping territorial claims over one of the world’s most important strategic waterways. While senior Trump officials launch diplomatic and rhetorical broadsides at Beijing, the U.S. Defense Department is turning to the firepower of its heavily armed, long-range bombers as it seeks to counter Beijing’s bid to control the seas off the Chinese coast.

Since late January, American B-1B and B-52 bombers, usually operating in pairs, have flown about 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, according to accounts of these flights from U.S. Air Force statements and official social media posts. These missions, military analysts say, are designed to send a crystal-clear signal: The United States can threaten China’s fleet and Chinese land targets at any time, from distant bases, without having to move America’s aircraft carriers and other expensive surface warships within range of Beijing’s massive arsenal of missiles.

In this response to the growing power of China’s military, the Pentagon has combined some of its oldest weapons with some of its newest: Cold War-era bombers and cutting-edge, stealthy missiles. The supersonic B1-B first entered service in 1986; the newest plane in the B-52 fleet was built during the Kennedy administration. But these workhorses can carry a huge payload of precision weapons. A B-1B can carry 24 of the U.S. military’s stealthy new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which entered service in 2018 and can strike targets at ranges of up to 600 kilometers, according to U.S. and other Western officials.

“A single B-1 can deliver the same ordnance payload as an entire carrier battle group in a day,” said David Deptula, dean of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General. And, in a crisis, he added, bombers can be rapidly deployed.

“Depending on where they are, ships can take weeks to get in place,” said Deptula. “But by using bombers, they can respond in a matter of hours,” he adds, noting that the U.S. object is to deter war. “Nobody wants to engage in conflict with China.”

Chinese and western military strategists warn that a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could be difficult to contain.

In a clash with China, this fast response from the bomber force could be vital while the U.S. and its allies rush naval reinforcements to the Pacific to bolster the vastly outnumbered U.S. naval fleet stationed in the region, according to current and former U.S. and other Western military officers.

A spokeswoman for Pacific Air Forces, Captain Veronica Perez, said the U.S. Air Force had increased its publicity about its bomber missions to assure allies and partners of Washington’s commitment to global security, regional stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific. “Though the frequency and scope of our operations vary based on the current operating environment, the U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

China’s defense ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

LOWEST POINT

While the bomber missions continue, relations between Washington and Beijing have reached their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In a show of force, Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait while U.S. Secretary for Health, Alex Azar, was visiting Taipei on Aug. 10 to congratulate the government of President Tsai Ing-wen on its successful containment of the COVID-19 virus. Azar was the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades.

Taiwan’s missile radars tracked the Chinese fighters in only the third such incursion across the median line since 2016, the Taiwanese government said. Beijing condemned the visit. It regards the island as a province of China and hasn’t ruled out the use of force to bring it under Communist Party control.

In a series of speeches ahead of Azar’s visit, top Trump officials had hammered China on multiple fronts, including its military build-up, territorial ambitions, domestic political repression, intellectual property theft, espionage, trade practices and its failure to alert the world to the danger of COVID-19.

In one of the most harshly worded attacks on China from an American official in decades, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 23 that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was not a normal fighting force.

“Its purpose is to uphold the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party elites and expand a Chinese empire, not protect the Chinese people,” he said. “And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait as well.” In July, Pompeo declared most of Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea illegal.

With the combination of bombers and long-range missiles, the United States is trying to turn the tables on the PLA. Over more than two decades, China has assembled a force of ground, sea and air-launched missiles that would make it deadly for warships of the U.S. Navy and its allies to approach the Chinese coast in a conflict. This Chinese strategy is specifically tailored to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and the network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia.

In a demonstration of this capability, the PLA launched one of its so-called carrier-killer missiles, the DF-26, in an exercise in the South China Sea following the deployment in July of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the area, China’s official military media reported in early August. And a U.S. defense official told Reuters that on Aug. 26, China launched four medium-range ballistic missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.

But the PLA Navy’s huge and rapidly expanding fleet is also vulnerable to long-range missiles. China has built the world’s biggest navy, including new aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and powerful cruisers and destroyers. And the PLA’s extensive network of bases and ports would also be targets for missiles.

In a conflict, U.S. bombers over the Western Pacific could target PLA Navy warships at their bases on the Chinese coast or underway inside the so-called first island chain, the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. Chinese warships would be even more vulnerable if they broke out through the island chain into the Western Pacific, outside the coverage of the PLA’s land-based air defenses and strike aircraft.

THE FIREPOWER GAP

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Washington assumed it had uncontested control of the oceans and neglected to arm its surface fleet with modern, long-range anti-ship missiles. To be sure, the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan, still have a powerful fleet of attack submarines that would pose a deadly menace to PLA warships. But the bombers help fill the firepower gap in the U.S. surface fleet while the Pentagon is re-purposing existing missiles and introducing new versions to its destroyers and cruisers, according to maritime strategists.

The bomber deployments are one element of a much wider reshaping of forces and tactics that the U.S. and its allies in East Asia have launched to deter China from attacking Taiwan, expanding its hold over the South China Sea or seizing other disputed territories. These include the uninhabited group of isles in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, which are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.

Tensions are on the rise around these islands, now under Japanese control. The commander of U.S. forces in Japan, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, pledged in July that America would help Japan monitor “unprecedented” Chinese incursions into waters around the Senkakus that were challenging Tokyo’s administration. Within an hour of Schneider’s comments, China’s foreign ministry fired back that the islands were “Chinese territory.”

Long-range U.S. bombers operating from distant airfields would remain a threat if Chinese missile attacks disabled key U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. These bases, mostly a carry-over from World War Two and the Korean War, were built at a time when China had very limited means to attack them.

Now it does. In a clear acknowledgement that Guam is now at risk, the U.S. Air Force announced on April 17 it would end its continuous rotation of bombers to the island base and withdraw them to the U.S. mainland.

The absence of a permanent bomber presence at Guam is a blow to Washington’s ability to deter China and North Korea, air power experts say. The island in the Western Pacific is less than a five-hour flight from the South China Sea.

“It makes it look like the Chinese military build-up has worked,” said Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University in Australia and a retired Australian air force Group Captain who has worked at the Pentagon. “They are now taken out of range.”

Since then, the United States has sent bombers to Guam for short-term deployments from their continental bases. U.S. air power researchers suggest that the availability of better training facilities at mainland U.S. bases was also a factor in the decision to withdraw the bombers. But in further evidence of Guam’s vulnerability, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has asked Congress to fund a powerful missile defense system for the island by 2026.

Another hurdle for the Pentagon: America’s bomber force is shrinking just as the PLA challenge grows. From a force of more than 400 at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk to 158 aircraft. Of those planes, 62 are B-1Bs and 76 are B-52S. The United States also has a smaller force of 20 newer B-2 stealth bombers.

The air force plans to retire 17 B-1Bs next year to concentrate resources on the remaining bombers until the planned introduction of a new generation of stealthy bomber, the B-21, toward the end of this decade. This bomber is expected to sharply improve the U.S. Air Force’s ability to penetrate Chinese airspace. Northrop Grumman is now building the first prototype, according to air force officials.

‘NOT LIKE FIGHTING SADDAM’

As the risk of conflict rises, some Western air power experts doubt that U.S. bombers would deliver a decisive advantage in a clash with the PLA. They say the Chinese military has spent decades preparing formidable, integrated air defenses. Even if the U.S. bombers were able to sink PLA Navy warships and stealthily penetrate Chinese airspace to strike some ground targets, they say it would not necessarily translate into victory against a vast and powerful adversary.

And, they warn, it might be impossible to fight a limited conflict on China’s periphery. “It is not like fighting Saddam Hussein, it would be a major world war,” said Layton, the retired Australian air force officer. “Both sides have nuclear weapons and there is the potential for escalation. If either side is losing, what is going to happen then?”

Alongside relying on its bombers, the United States has been forced to develop other plans to offset the Chinese missile and naval threat. The U.S Marine Corps is planning to disperse smaller units armed with long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles through the first island chain, where they could threaten the Chinese navy and land targets on China’s mainland.

The U.S. Army also intends to spread forces through the first island chain and other outposts in the Western Pacific. It is planning a series of major exercises this year and next where troops would deploy to islands in the region, according to senior commanders and top Pentagon officials.

New weapons are in the pipeline that would give specially formed army task force units the firepower to strike at Chinese warships and other targets in a conflict. The U.S. Army’s top commander, General James McConville, told an online seminar hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in late July that a very long-range hyper sonic missile was under development and tests had been successful. And soldiers would have the tools to attack an enemy’s navy. “We are going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships,” McConville said.

The U.S. and its allies also intend to link all their surveillance systems and weapons together in a regional network so that tracking information about a target could be shared between radar stations, satellites, surface warships, submarines, aircraft and land forces. In this system, a stealth fighter flying from a carrier could detect an enemy warship and relay this information to an army unit on an island, which could attack the foe with an anti-ship missile.

On May 21, two U.S. B-1B bombers from Guam flew to an area near Misawa Air Base in Japan, where they conducted long-range anti-ship missile training with a P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, according to a U.S. Pacific Air Force statement. This exercise demonstrated that the U.S. had the capability to “hold any target at risk, anytime and anywhere,” said Perez, the Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman.

The ships and aircraft involved in this exercise likely practiced the sharing of target information to mount a simulated attack, according to U.S. and Asian military experts. On other missions this year, the American bombers have held joint exercises with U.S., Japanese and South Korean fighters.

CHINESE AIRSPACE

In this networked battlefield, the Pentagon’s old warhorses of the air would be an even more formidable rival.

The speed and range of America’s Cold War-vintage bombers would allow them to approach Chinese targets from different directions and fire salvos of difficult-to-detect missiles at multiple ships, according to current and retired U.S. air force officers. With even longer range missiles that Washington has in the pipeline, such attacks could be mounted from well outside the range of China’s powerful, land-based air defenses. American bombers can also drop precision-guided mines to block strategically important ocean passages or ports.

And the U.S. B-2 stealth bombers could penetrate more deeply into Chinese airspace and attack key targets with sharply less chance of detection than the older bombers. These bombers already carry a heavy payload of precision, land-attack munitions and could also be configured to carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile.

A B-1B could take off from the continental United States, refuel from tanker aircraft en route, and arrive over the Western Pacific in about 15 hours, according to Deptula and other military aviation analysts. From Hawaii the trip would take about nine hours, they say. Even closer, from northern Australia, the transit would take six hours without refueling.

The Australian government announced in February it would spend $814 million upgrading a key air base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, including a major extension to its runway. Part of the reason for the upgrade is to support expanded U.S. Air Force operations, the Australian government said. American bombers are already using the base.

The B-1B originally served as a nuclear bomber. That role has been phased out. It now carries around 34 metric tonnes (75,000 pounds) of conventional guided and unguided weapons, the biggest payload of any U.S. aircraft. In the military operations launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, these bombers were flown hard for almost two decades to provide ground support to American and allied troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

With the Pentagon having turned its competitive sights on China, the B-1B is now increasingly employed as a ship killer. In future, it could also be armed with a new hyper sonic missile, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), now in testing, and a new long-range cruise missile, according to senior U.S. Air Force commanders. Hyper sonic missiles traveling at more than five times the speed of sound would be hard to intercept.

The B-52 is an even older icon of American might, in service since the mid-1950’s. It carries a slightly smaller payload than the B-1B. As part of this weapons load, it can be armed with up to 14 upgraded versions of the Cold War-era Harpoon anti-ship missile. And, it could also be configured in future to carry 20 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, according to air power experts. Along with the B-2, the B-52 can also launch nuclear missiles.

While these older bombers remain potent, American air power experts say a strong force of B-21 stealth bombers will be much more effective when they begin entering service later this decade. The new bomber is being developed in a highly classified program. “All the indications are that it is proceeding well in the development phases,” said Deptula.

(Reporting by David Lague in Hong Kong. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)

U.S. orders China to shut Houston consulate as spying accusations mount

By Cate Cadell and David Brunnstrom

BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States gave China 72 hours to close its consulate in Houston amid accusations of spying, marking a dramatic deterioration in relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday the Chinese mission in Houston was being closed “to protect American intellectual property and Americans’ private information.”

China’s foreign ministry said Washington had abruptly issued the demand on Tuesday and called it an “unprecedented escalation.” The ministry threatened unspecified retaliation.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington had received “bomb and death threats” because of “smears & hatred” fanned by the U.S. government, spokeswoman Hua Chunying wrote in a tweet.

“The U.S. should revoke its erroneous decision,” she said. “China will surely react with firm countermeasures.”

Communist Party rulers in Beijing were considering shutting the U.S. consulate in the central city of Wuhan in retaliation, a source with knowledge of the matter said.

U.S.-based China experts said Beijing could also opt to target more important consulates in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Guangzhou, something that could hurt American businesses.

The Houston move comes in the run-up to the November U.S. presidential election, in which President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have both tried to look tough towards China.

Speaking on a visit to Denmark, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated accusations about Chinese theft of U.S. and European intellectual property, which he said were costing “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

While offering no specifics about the Houston consulate, Pompeo referred to a U.S. Justice Department indictment on Tuesday of two Chinese nationals over what it called a decade-long cyber espionage campaign that targeted defense contractors, COVID-19 researchers and hundreds of other victims worldwide.

Pompeo also referred to recent speeches by the head of the FBI and others that highlighted Chinese espionage activities.

“President Trump has said: ‘Enough. We are not going to allow this to continue to happen,'” he told reporters. “That’s the actions that you’re seeing taken by President Trump, we’ll continue to engage in this.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, described the Houston consulate on Twitter as the “central node of the Communist Party’s vast network of spies & influence operations in the United States.”

Trump was due to hold a news conference at 5.30 p.m. (2130 GMT), the White House said.

The New York Times quoted the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, David Stilwell, as saying that the Houston consulate had been at the “epicenter” of the Chinese army’s efforts to advance its warfare advantages by sending students to U.S. universities.

“We took a practical step to prevent them from doing that,” Stilwell told the Times.

Stephen Biegun, the State Department’s number two diplomat, told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee the decision was made in response to “longstanding areas of concern.”

He said these included intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, as well as unequal treatment of U.S. diplomats, exporters, investors and media in China and abuse by China’s security services of the welcoming U.S. posture toward Chinese students and researchers.

A Chinese diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, denied the spying allegations and said the Houston mission acted like other Chinese consulates in the United States – issuing visas, and promoting visits and businesses.

‘RACE TO THE BOTTOM’

U.S.-China ties have worsened sharply this year over issues ranging from the coronavirus and telecoms-gear maker Huawei to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and clampdown on Hong Kong.

Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert with the Brookings Institution, said he could not think of anything “remotely equivalent” to the move against the Houston consulate since the U.S. and China opened full diplomatic relations in 1979.

“The Trump Administration appears to view this latest action as political ammunition in the presidential campaign… It’s part of the administration’s race to the bottom against China,” he said.

Overnight in Houston, firefighters went to the consulate after smoke was seen. Two U.S. government officials said they had information that documents were being burned there.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the consulate was operating normally.

But its closure within a short period of time by Washington was “an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China,” Wang said.

A source with direct knowledge of the matter said China was considering closing the U.S. consulate in Wuhan, where the State Department withdrew staff and their families early this year due to the coronavirus outbreak that first emerged in the city.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it would shut the consulate.

Wang said the U.S. government had been harassing Chinese diplomats and consular staff for some time and intimidating Chinese students. He said the United States had interfered with China’s diplomatic missions, including intercepting diplomatic pouches. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the Chinese accusations.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Nikolaj Skydsgaard in Copenhagen, Patricia Zengerle, Daphne Psaledakis, Mark Hosenball, Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Michelle Nichols and Echo Wang in New York and Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Writing by David Brunnstrom and Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. aircraft carriers return to South China Sea amid rising tensions

By James Pearson

HANOI (Reuters) – For the second time in two weeks, the United States has deployed two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said on Friday, as China and the United States accuse each other of stoking tensions in the region.

The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carried out operations and military exercises in the contested waterway between July 4 and July 6, and returned to the region on Friday, according to a U.S. Navy statement.

“Nimitz and Reagan Carrier Strike Groups are operating in the South China Sea, wherever international law allows, to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based international order, and to our allies and partners in the region,” Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz, said in the statement.

The presence of the carriers was not in response to political or world events, the statement added, but relations between Washington and Beijing are currently strained over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.

Heated rhetoric has been on the rise in the region, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam challenge China’s claim to about 90% of the sea.

China held military drills in the sea earlier this month, drawing strong condemnation from both Vietnam and the Philippines, at the same time as the two carriers first crossed the waterway for what the U.S. Navy said were pre-planned exercises.

The U.S. Navy says its carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, which extends for some 1,500 km (900 miles). At one point recently, the United States had three carriers in the region.

About $3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea each year. The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.

(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)