MANILA, Philippines — Amid concerns in the Philippines about the future of its military alliance with the United States, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan moored off Manila this week to show support for an ally locked in a territorial dispute with China.
The visit comes shortly after President Rodrigo Duterte told the Philippine Congress that he couldn’t do anything to ward off China’s claims in the South China Sea and would rather negotiate with Beijing than risk a potentially disastrous war.
The aircraft carrier was meant to send a different message: that the Philippines could rely on the naval might of the United States, its military ally for decades. To drive home the point, local journalists were invited to tour the Ronald Reagan on Wednesday.
The carrier “is very capable and ready to respond to a wide range of operations, whether they be crisis or whether they be a humanitarian disaster response,” said Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of Task Force 70, which includes the Ronald Reagan.
The carrier’s call in Manila Bay came after it sailed through waters claimed by China. Earlier this week, Mike Esper, the new U.S. defense secretary, accused China of “destabilizing behavior” for its aggressive moves in the South China Sea.
In remarks made in Australia, Esper said that the Indo-Pacific region, as the Trump administration calls it, was open to free naval passage for everyone, and that his government’s “national defense strategy makes this our priority theater.”
Thomas refrained from commenting directly on Esper’s statement, but he emphasized the carrier’s mission to cruise the seas and provide a counterbalance to China.
“The beauty of this aircraft carrier is that it provides a lot of security and stability to this region,” he said. “It allows us to go out there and set an environment where these kinds of disputes can be solved in a peaceful manner.”
Duterte has been facing demands by opposition politicians for a stronger stand against China since the sinking in June of a Philippine boat by a larger Chinese trawler, in waters claimed by both countries. Duterte characterized the sinking as a “maritime incident” rather than harassment.
His gradual embrace of China has helped win his country billions in dollars in investment pledges from Beijing. He is expected to make another trip to China this month, his fifth since becoming president three years ago.
But analysts say Duterte’s approach may threaten its ties to a dependable ally. In recent years, the U.S. military has helped beat back rebels who took over the southern Philippine city of Marawi in 2017 and provided crucial humanitarian relief after the devastation of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
The USS Ronald Reagan’s visit “sends a very powerful message to countries in the region that not only is the United States here to stay, but it has in the arsenal of its military assets that are far superior to what any nation in the region has,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, a political analyst and military historian at the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, a Philippine think tank. “It is indeed a show of force.”
While China can intimidate the Philippines and its smaller regional neighbors with the sheer size of its naval force, it does not have aircraft carriers that can compete with the U.S. Navy’s.
“China is outclassed and outgunned and will be outfought by the U.S. and its allies in any hypothetical naval encounter,” Custodio said. He said China was “bluffing” in the South China Sea and that it was “only Duterte who is swallowing the Chinese lie hook, line and sinker.”
Chief Petty Officer Rommel Langomez, who serves aboard the Ronald Reagan and traces his roots to suburban Pasay city in Manila, said the carrier’s mission was to protect the “small fish that can easily be bullied,” namely the Philippines and other nations that have territorial disputes with China.
“It is also painful to see that our countrymen are being treated this way,” he said.