In a show of strength before an international court’s ruling on China’s claims in the South China Sea, the US Navy sent two aircraft carriers and their accompanying ships to participate in training drills in the western Pacific Ocean on Saturday.
The USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan sailed close together in the Philippine Sea as part of air defense and sea surveillance operations that involved 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft and six smaller warships, the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii said in a statement.
“We must take advantage of these opportunities to practice war-fighting techniques that are required to prevail in modern naval operations,” US Navy Rear Admiral John Alexander said in a statement.
The operations took place on the eastern side of the Philippines, in a body of water that is not adjacent to the South China Sea, but is close, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet said.
China seeks to dominate the western Pacific Ocean as part of its long-term strategy, US strategists say.
The message of the two carriers’ participation in the exercise was unmistakable and the timing was deliberate, said a US official familiar with the planning of the operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
It could have been conducted later, the official added.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, is deliberating a case filed by the Philippines in 2013 against China’s claims in the South China Sea and its decision is expected in the coming weeks.
The Philippines is challenging China’s claims to what Beijing refers to as the “nine-dash line,” an area that covers almost all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the Philippine coast. Taiwan also has competing claims to the area.
The issue of the “nine-dash line” is delicate, because China has claimed it since ancient times as its territory and the South China Sea has become part of the increasingly nationalistic vocabulary of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Over the past two years, China has built artificial islands equipped with military runways in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), inside the line and not far from the Philippines.
In a statement on the exercise involving the carriers, the Pacific Fleet said: “As a Pacific nation and a Pacific leader, the United States has a national interest in maintaining security and prosperity, peaceful resolution of disputes, unimpeded lawful commerce and adherence to freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the shared domains of the Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
The Stennis conducted exercises with Japanese and Indian naval forces in the western Pacific and the South China Sea earlier in the week, an operation that was shadowed by a Chinese surveillance vessel.
The Stennis then joined the Reagan, which had been undergoing maintenance at a US base in Japan, the Pacific Fleet spokesman said.
Early this month, US Senator John McCain, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Armed Services, foreshadowed the dual-carrier exercise in a speech in Singapore, saying it was part of increased US vigilance in the Pacific.
Last week, the US dispatched four navy electronic warfare aircraft and 120 military personnel to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
At a conference on Saturday in Beijing hosted by Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper known for its strident coverage, some analysts warned of an arms race in the western Pacific.
“The Chinese side is determined to increase its power, and [US President Barack] Obama is determined to defend the United States’ position,” said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
Both militaries need to be cautious in the South China Sea, said China Institute of International Studies Department of American Studies director Teng Jianqun (滕建群), who also attended the conference.
“Any misunderstanding could lead to a disaster between the two countries,” Teng said.
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