Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is planning a trip to Hawaii this week to meet with Chinese government officials as tensions continue to mount between China and the U.S., according to multiple media reports.
Recently, the U.S. has been escalating 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, the Associated Press reported.
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 sign that the Navy has bounced back from the worst days of the coronavirus outbreak.
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. Last 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.
Koehler said that most recently China deployed aircraft to Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands and is now operating them out of there.
On Thursday, the strike group warships were spread out across the Indo-Pacific. The USS Theodore Roosevelt and its strike group are operating in the Philippine Sea near Guam. The USS Nimitz strike group is in the Pacific off the U.S. West Coast. The USS Ronald Reagan has left port in Japan and is operating in the Philippine Sea south of there. Navy commanders were quick to point out that dozens of other Navy ships had been operating around the Pacific, but the three strike groups put a bit of an exclamation point on America’s commitment to the region and its allies.
Meanwhile, Pompeo said in an email to staff last week that he rejects what he called “vile propaganda” by China, Iran and other adversaries surrounding the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer while in police custody.
The death prompted criticism from allies such as Australia over a police attack on an Australian news crew and claims from nations such as China that the events of the last several weeks showed the hypocrisy of U.S. calls for democracy and respect for human rights elsewhere.
“Yes, the United States is imperfect,” Pompeo said. “We should always be both proud of what we’ve achieved and humble knowing there is more to do.”
Pompeo argued that in the U.S., reporters are free to question their political leaders and protesters are free to demand change.
“The American response to events of these past weeks presents a stark contrast to what happens in totalitarian regimes around the world,” Pompeo said. “We must reject unequivocally the false charges — many of them vile propaganda emanating from China, Iran and other autocracies — questioning America’s credibility in promoting human rights and democracy abroad.”
CNN reported Pompeo’s trip to the islands will last about 24 hours.