Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks to the crew of mine countermeasures ship USS Pioneer (MCM 9) over the ship’s 1MC during a tour, June 9.

Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks to the crew of mine countermeasures ship USS Pioneer (MCM 9) over the ship’s 1MC during a tour, June 9. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael H. Lee

When China Pushes, Push Back, Admiral Says

Seventh Fleet commander says the U.S. needs to continue freedom of navigation patrols in the Pacific.

The U.S. Navy must keep sailing warships in international waters claimed by China, because “if you don’t push back, and if we don’t take a stand, they’ll just continue to move the ball down the field,” the commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet said Friday.

The remarks on the importance of what the military calls freedom of navigation patrols—and which Beijing says undermine peace and stability—comes as China’s leader, Xi Jinping is poised to take a third term, and just days after the Biden administration imposed sanctions on China’s ability to purchase critical chip technology. 

Though China stays “right below that level” of violating rules-based international order at sea, it has gotten closer over the years, said Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, who oversees Navy assets in the Western Pacific from the fleet’s headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan. 

When he was commander of the USS Ronald Reagan strike group, “We would have [China] join us if we're operating in the South China Sea. If we left the nine dash line, they would break off. Today they are a little more persistent. They'll stay with us a little farther. They patrol the Spratlys a little greater than they did back then. They do more coordinated exercises, but they do it often by themselves.”

By contrast, he said, “When we do an exercise, it’s with all of our friends.”

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies and U.S. Naval Institute event in Annapolis, Maryland, Thomas outlined the variety of operations Navy assets are involved in today in the Western Pacific—from a trilateral anti-mine exercise in the Sea of Japan to Manila, where the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier just arrived for a multilateral maritime security exercise—and stressed the value of partnerships.

That value is on display now in Ukraine, he said, where dozens of countries have stepped up to provide support after Russia’s invasion. 

“When you try to use force to go across borders, that causes the international community to respond as a team,” Thomas said. “Then, I think that you look at the challenges that Russia has had in this fight to be able to not only sustain themselves, but … it certainly didn’t play out the way that [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] thought.”

Meanwhile, Thomas called China’s military exercises around Taiwan after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit “irresponsible.” 

The U.S. has the responsibility “to provide defensive capability to Taiwan, and to make sure that we’re ready, and we are. Our desire would be to have a peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences, and the PRC says that’s their desire,” he said. “But when you see them fire ballistic missiles over Taiwan and have them land in the maritime commons and the shipping lanes, and some of them actually landed in the Japanese economic exclusion zone. … I think that’s not the way that countries that want to be leaders within the world should behave.”

Xi on Sunday said China will “strive for peaceful reunification” with the contested island, but warned it will take “all measures necessary” for that reunification, directing his comments “solely at interference by outside forces and a few separatists seeking Taiwan independence,” The New York Times reported.  

As for North Korea, which has recently stepped up its campaign of ballistic missiles and military flights close to the South Korean border, Thomas said it “certainly has ... our attention” and is a concern. However, he said, he would not prioritize it over his “bigger concern” in the area: namely, China.