Contrary to the Duterte administration’s eager courtship of Beijing, the longstanding alliance between Manila and Washington, DC remains firm. This was apparent when the Carl Vinson Strike Group paid a visit to Manila on February 16, a Friday. Because of its size, the nuclear-powered carrier lay anchored some 10 kilometers from the coastal metropolis. It was accompanied by the guided missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy.
The Carl Vinson and its escort left on the 19th but not before receiving members of the Philippine military and government during the weekend. President Duterte himself, who’s a keen visitor of foreign naval vessels, didn’t bother to drop by and make a speech for protocol’s sake.
The Carl Vinson’s presence in the Philippines had more to do with courtesy than an elaborate strategic gambit. Even the US embassy in Manila described its present mission as far from critical, being confined “to routine maritime operations, promote freedom of navigation, and work with partners and allies to enhance regional security and stability.”
The embassy did refer to the carrier’s route as “the Indo-Pacific.” The geographic term came into fashion during last year’s APEC Summit in Vietnam from November 6 until 11. Compared to the “Pacific Pivot” from previous years the US is now cultivating powerful allies–Australia, India, and Japan– who can hopefully deter China’s own strategic imperative: dominating sea lanes with military bases and raw firepower. Having set sail from Guam, the Carl Vinson’s strike group was expected to loiter in the South China Sea this February before visiting Vietnam in March.
The Philippines isn’t recognized as a member of the grandiose Indo-Pacific “Quad alliance” for the simple reason it has little to contribute. So what was the Carl Vinson supposed to accomplish in Manila? Not much.
But this didn’t keep the Carl Vinson from sowing a little goodwill, which is still more than what visiting Chinese warships have accomplished. The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines is intact while no such covenant binds Manila to Beijing’s orbit yet. The Carl Vinson’s arrival didn’t elicit any public outrage either, while China’s artificial islands remain a sore point in local politics.
For the sake of public relations, the US Pacific Fleet reported how sailors from the Carl Vinson did leave their ship to help a low income neighborhood in nearby Quezon City. In another trust-building effort, the Carl Vinson’s crew prepared 3,300 boxes of supplies for evacuees in Albay, a province wracked by ash fall from a volcanic eruption.
A small group of Filipino VIPs did board the Carl Vinson for a private tour. These included two of Duterte’s trusted cabinet members, Salvador Medialdea and Martin Andanar. With them were Philippine Marine Corps Major General Alvin Parreño and the Navy’s Rear Admiral Gaudencio Collado.
The Chinese propaganda outlet Global Times did publish a few choice words about the Carl Vinson’s activities. One expert, the “research fellow” Liu Weidong, blamed the White House with word salad. “The Trump administration is trying to pressure China by creating more issues including the South China Sea issue, as it feels uneasy and unsatisfied by China’s rising competitiveness,” he said.
The USS Carl Vinson is a Nimitz-class supercarrier commissioned in 1982. Displacing nearly 100,000 tons, it’s powered by two nuclear reactors allowing it to ply the waves at a respectable 35 knots. Its flight deck and hangar offers enough space for 72 aircraft, the majority being F/A-18 Hornets. With its home port in San Diego, the USS Carl Vinson is a creature of the Asia-Pacific, having deployed as far as the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf, and its career highlights involved supporting US forces deployed to the Middle East.