US navy exercises in South China Sea

AFP , HONG KONG AND TAIPEI

Sun, Aug 19, 2001 - Page 1

Two US aircraft carrier battle groups have staged a rare exercise in the South China Sea in an apparent show of support for Taiwan as China conducts its biggest ever war games.

The USS Carl Vinson and the USS Constellation led Friday's one-day exercise involving 13 other vessels including three submarines, about 150 aircraft and more than 15,000 personnel.

The exercise was a "rare meeting at sea" for two US battle groups, an official report on the US 7th Fleet's Web site said.

The "passing exercise" was believed to have comprised the launching of fighter jets and joint operations between crews from the giant aircraft carriers.

"Along with the valuable training benefits achieved during the exercise, the meeting of the two aircraft carrier battle groups on the high seas demonstrates a commitment to providing peace and cooperation in the region while preserving the right to freedom of navigation," it said.

The Web site report did not give the exact location in the South China Sea for the exercises. The Constellation is due to arrive in Hong Kong tomorrow for a port call.

A spokesman for the 7th Fleet told the South China Morning Post the exercises were not intended to send a "specific message" to China, but analysts quoted by the newspaper were doubtful.

They said the rare US show of force was a pointed message to Beijing as the People's Liberation Army conducts big war games on the southern coast facing Taiwan.

"There are no coincidences around the Taiwan Strait and the Americans would have been fully aware of the PLA exercises when they planned this," said Paul Beaver, an independent defense analyst in Britain. "They are demonstrating to the PLA that they have an interest in the future of Taiwan."

"It is a very obvious response to the [PLA] exercise," said Joanna Kidd, a naval analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Taiwan said yesterday it did not know exactly what the two US aircraft carriers were doing in the South China Sea, but was looking into it.

"We are checking with related agencies to learn more about it," defense ministry spokesman Huang Suey-sheng (黃穗生) said.

But he said the US can do what it likes in the unrestricted stretch of ocean.

China has begun final preparations for its largest ever military exercises which would simulate an invasion of the Penghu islands, the Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po said yesterday.

In the third phase of the "Liberation No.1" drill on Dongshan Island in China's Fujian Province, PLA troops will try to "strongly resist US intervention" over Taiwan, the daily said. The drills, which started in April, involve more than 100,000 troops from military divisions across China as well as naval and air forces, it said.

Apart from occupying an outlying Taiwanese island, the Chinese exercises are aimed at "fighting off an aircraft carrier," the South China Morning Post said. Taiwan does not have any aircraft carriers.