China's military warned the United States on Friday to stop what it called provocation over the South China Sea, after the US Navy deployed a littoral combat ship for a freedom of navigation operation in the disputed waters for the first time.
The use of USS Gabrielle Giffords was seen as a way to sustain such operations, alleviating the burden on the usually deployed destroyers and seeking a stronger military deterrent in the South China Sea, military affairs analysts said.
The US' latest freedom of navigation operation came as China's first home-grown aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, headed to waters near Hainan island in the South China Sea, for sea trials.
The latest move by the US Navy triggered a rebuke from the Chinese military, the Southern Theatre Command saying in a statement that its fleet had maintained surveillance of the USS Gabrielle Giffords and destroyer USS Wayne E. Meyer, and warned the ships to leave.
"The US has kept sending naval vessels to stir up trouble in the South China Sea under the pretext of freedom of navigation," the statement said. "We call on the US to stop such provocative acts to avoid the happening of any mishap."
Freedom of navigation operations have been stepped up by the US in recent years, counterbalancing China's military build-up in the disputed waters. It has reported eight such operations so far this year, compared with six in 2018, four in 2017, three in 2016 and one in 2015.
On Wednesday, the littoral combat ship (LCS) Gabrielle Giffords travelled within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, said Commander Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the US Navy's Seventh Fleet.
On Thursday, the destroyer Wayne E. Meyer challenged restrictions on innocent passage in the disputed Paracel Islands, Mommsen said.
"These missions are based on the rule of law and demonstrate our commitment to upholding the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations," she said.
Freedom of navigation operations are usually conducted by the Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyers, but the deployment of the LCS boosted fleet availability after an upgrade.
Gabrielle Giffords has recently been equipped with a naval strike missile that can strike targets from about 100 miles, which it launched at a decommissioned US frigate in a joint exercise with Singapore last month.
"As a consequence, not only could this generate capacity to sustain freedom of navigation operations, besides helping to alleviate the burden on the Burke destroyer force, it also allows the destroyers more opportunities to engage in other necessary routine activities, especially the essential maintenance, repairs and overhauls to keep them operational," said Collin Koh, a military analyst from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
Koh said the original LCS armament was only to deal with shorter-range threats such as small craft.
"Hence there had been earlier criticisms that the LCS, with its puny offensive armaments, wouldn't stand a chance against the PLA Navy's Type-056 corvette, which is way cheaper than the LCS yet packs a much more formidable anti-ship punch than the latter," he said. "Therefore, the recent years' efforts on the LCS programme sought to remedy this gap."
An earlier report by the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a think tank affiliated with Peking University, said LCS had unique advantages in the South China Sea.
The report said the ships' low draught gave them better access to shallow waters, which would help the effort to carry out reconnaissance missions in the scattered reefs of the disputed Spratly chain. Their fast speed " up to 50 knots " was also an advantage in freedom of navigation missions, the report said.
Thanks to their modular design, the ships can also quickly switch between carrying out combat missions and anti-mine or anti-submarine operations.
The ships' deployment represented a subtle change in the US Navy's strategy in the South China Sea, suggesting that commanders were starting to focus on practical ways to improve their strike capability in the region by "proactively seeking military deterrence and preparing for potential military conflicts", the report said.
Richard Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University, said the trajectory was going towards deploying not only more frequent but also more advanced warships to the South China Sea.
"Since last year, we have seen more reliance on attack warships and often not only one but two at times," he said. "Enjoying ever-greater policy autonomy under the Donald Trump administration, the Pentagon is clearly signalling its willingness to take the fight to China."
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper met Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe this week for closed-door talks on the sidelines of a gathering of defence ministers in Bangkok.
Esper has accused Beijing of "increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives" in the region.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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