(CNN) – U.S. Navy commanders face a possible naval power vacuum in Asia in the coming weeks following the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the Middle East, as tensions with China are intensifying in the waters of the region.
According to two unidentified US officials, the Japan-based aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is expected to head to the Middle East in the coming days to support the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
However, analysts say this move could leave a void in the US presence in East Asia, at a time when Beijing is increasing pressure on the South China Sea and Taiwan.
China could also point to the US deployment as proof of its claims that Washington cannot fulfill its military commitments in Asia, said Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“It will be great stuff for Beijing’s propaganda machine, no doubt,” Koh said, adding that the United States could be without an aircraft carrier in Asia for months.
“In other governments in the region there will be similar concerns about the ‘hole’ in the US military posture in the region during this absence of aircraft carriers,” he said.
Change of strategy
Thomas Shugart, a former US Navy officer and deputy member of the Center for a New American Security, said that leaving a vacuum in the presence of aircraft carriers in Asia seems contrary to the defense priorities declared by the US.
“Considering that our most recent National Defense Strategy indicated a clear prioritization of China’s military challenge over continued engagement in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is a bit surprising to see our only aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific drift away from that priority theater, ”Shugart said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin could sign Reagan’s transfer orders as soon as this week, US officials said.
It is yet to be decided how many cruisers and destroyers could accompany the Reagan.
It would replace the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, which is covering the Afghan mission from the North Arabian Sea on a regular rotation. The US Naval Institute News reports that the Eisenhower, on its second deployment in a year, is in need of repairs and will have to leave the region in July.
This replacement schedule could keep an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf to help defend US troops in Afghanistan at least until the scheduled withdrawal deadline of 9/11.
The Importance of Reagan in US Defense Strategy
The Reagan, based in Yokosuka, Japan, near Tokyo, is the only US Navy aircraft carrier deployed in a forward position. It is the largest and most visible asset of the US Armed Forces in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Until last summer, the Reagan and USS Nimitz operated in the region, including conducting exercises in the South China Sea. The Nimitz returned to Washington state in March after nearly a year at sea.
Earlier this year, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt conducted maneuvers in the South China Sea, but this week it returned to its home port in San Diego.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, 335 meters long and 97,000 tons of displacement, each have an air component of 75 aircraft, including F / A-18 fighters.
The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, claims that the fact that the Reagan is based in the Indo-Pacific region reduces the transit time by 17 days to reach contingencies in the region, compared to aircraft carriers from the continental United States.
China, for its part, has two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning, based in Qingdao, and the Shandong, which has its port at the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island, in the extreme north of the South China Sea.
Disputed territories in the region
China claims almost the entire 2 million square kilometer South China Sea as sovereign territory, even though Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan claim parts of it.
In recent months, the forces of the People’s Liberation Army have carried out frequent maneuvers in the South China Sea. Earlier this week, the PLA said its warplanes “fired thousands of munitions at maritime targets” as part of a regular exercise to demonstrate combat readiness, according to a report in the state-run Global Times newspaper.
China has also been highly critical of the presence of US warships in the South China Sea, stating that these US Navy deployments exacerbate tensions and threaten peace and stability in the region.
How the United States Can Make Up for Reagan’s Absence
Despite the apparent loss of an aircraft carrier in Asia, the United States has other resources it can draw on, said Carl Schuster, former chief director of operations for the United States Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Center.
Schuster claims that a US amphibious assault ship based in Japan carries F-35 fighters and could temporarily replace it in Asian waters.
And there are other ways to project power, he said.
“I suspect the Air Force will send bombers to fly over the South China Sea while the Reagan is out. It will not have the same presence as an aircraft carrier, but it will send the same political signal, “said Schuster.
Reagan’s absence from East Asian waters could also coincide with a visit to the region by a British Royal Navy carrier strike group led by Britain’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The British aircraft carrier, which carries US Marine Corps F-35 fighters as well as British versions of the same aircraft, left England last weekend in a flotilla that included a US destroyer. It is expected to transit the South China Sea in late summer on its way to Japan.
“Since the entire (UK) carrier strike group is also powered by US and Dutch assets and personnel, it would be a useful tool to signal US allied solidarity in the region as long as there is no (US) aircraft carrier.” said Koh, the Singapore-based researcher.
The Reagan recently departed from its home port in Japan to conduct crew training at sea. Shugart said it would be helpful if the Reagan returned to Asian waters as soon as possible after its deployment to the Middle East.
“Hopefully this (deployment) will be for a limited period of time while the US withdrawal from Afghanistan progresses, and once the Ronald Reagan strike group is complete it can return to focus on truly fighting the expansion. remarkable of Chinese naval and air power that has been produced in recent years, “he said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that no information would be released on any planned deployments.
“We are not talking about potential future operations. We are certainly not talking about potential ship movements in advance, “he said.
– With information from CNN’s Barbara Starr