DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, for the first time since World War II, the United States has assigned two Navy fleets to the western Pacific. This is part of a larger effort begun under the Obama administration to beef up forces to cope with several potential conflicts in Asia. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited a U.S. aircraft carrier as it was sailing through the South China Sea.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: On the deck of the USS Carl Vinson, F18 fighter jets are catapulted skyward with a trail of smoke and a deafening roar.
(SOUNDBITE OF JET ENGINE)
KUHN: The Carl Vinson is the flagship of the first carrier strike group under the 3rd Fleet. Its home port is in San Diego, but for the second year in a row, it's operating in the western Pacific. It works in tandem with the 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan. The carrier's commander, Captain Douglas Verissimo, says that just by being here, his ship sends an important message.
DOUGLAS VERISSIMO: We are used often as an information arm that shows the resolve and gives decision space to our leaders. When they put a carrier strike group somewhere, it helps to show that the United States is interested.
KUHN: Both the Obama and Trump administrations have expressed a heightened interest in Asia. And there are plenty of hot spots in the neighborhood. Besides North Korea, there's the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea. There's Taiwan, which China has threatened to attack if it declares independence. And there's the South China Sea, where China has built up and fortified sandy reefs. Captain Verissimo says that's where we are now.
VERISSIMO: Smack dab in the middle. You know, I don't want to talk about exact, but we're north of the Spratly Islands. We're east of Woody, and we're west of Manila.
KUHN: All of these hot spots involve China. The tricky thing is if the U.S. challenges China over Taiwan or the South China Sea, then it might not be so willing to cooperate on North Korea. But Captain Verissimo insists that the 3rd Fleet's deployment is not aimed at China anyway.
VERISSIMO: I'd like to shy away from countering anybody specifically, but we are certainly here to keep the norms and customs that we've been used to over the last 50 or 60 years.
KUHN: One thing that's sure to get Beijing's attention is that the USS Carl Vinson will be docking in Vietnam this month, the first U.S. carrier to do that since the end of the Vietnam War 43 years ago. Vietnam is one of several of China's neighbors embroiled in disputes over islands in the South China Sea. At night, the jets stop flying. The 5,000-plus crew members aboard the Carl Vinson settle in for the night, and the sounds of waves and machines are broken only by the occasional announcement over the PA system.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOATSWAIN WHISTLE)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Roman Catholic Mass is being held in the ship's chapel. Maintain silence in the vicinity of the ship's chapel.
KUHN: The other fleet assigned to the western Pacific, the 7th, was rocked by two deadly collisions last year that cost 17 lives. An investigation found that the fleet was conducting so many operations at sea that they didn't have time for proper training. The 3rd Fleet is now in the western Pacific for around half the year. So I went to the machine shop to ask crew members how that affects them.
MATTHEW ALLEN: My name is Matthew Allen. I am from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I am a machinery repairman on board the USS Carl Vinson.
KUHN: Allen's milling a block of aluminum to fix a ship's door.
ALLEN: I do feel down sometimes, but I'm a very positive person. I look at all the positive things that'll come after this and my wife's smiling face as soon as I come back home. That's everything I look forward to.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEYSHIA COLE SONG, "LOVE (KARAOKE)")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I used to think that I wasn't fine enough.
KUHN: Singing karaoke in the ship's mess hall was one way that crew members relax. Matthew Allen says he doesn't worry too much about the risk of a conflict during his deployments. He says he's confident his commanders have a good game plan in case of trouble. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.