A US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan has entered the South China Sea as part of a routine mission, the US Navy said, at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing, which claims most of the disputed waterway.
The carrier is being accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh and the guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey, the US Navy said on Tuesday.
China frequently objects to US military missions in the South China Sea, saying they do not help promote peace or stability, and the latest mission comes after China condemned the Group of Seven (G7) nations for a statement criticising Beijing over a range of issues.
“While in the South China Sea, the strike group is conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units,” the US Navy said.
“Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the US Navy’s routine presence in the Indo-Pacific.”
China has ramped up its military presence in the South China Sea in recent years, including building artificial islands and air bases, where it has installed missile systems and other equipment.
The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the US, with Washington rejecting what it calls unlawful territorial claims by Beijing in the resource-rich waters, which are also claimed by Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
In a show of force against the Chinese claims, US warships have passed through the South China Sea with increasing frequency in recent years, invoking freedom of navigation rights. In a related development, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin has said the country will extend a key military pact with the US, after months of negotiations between the two countries.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened in February last year to axe the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) after Washington cancelled the visa of a close ally who led his internationally condemned war on drugs. Duterte, who has cultivated closer ties with China, later reversed his decision, which analysts said could have further weakened decades of close military cooperation between Manila and Washington, DC.
It is the third time Duterte has extended the deal, which provides the legal framework for joint military exercises with the US.
“The president conveyed to us his decision to extend the suspension of the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement by another six months while he studies and both sides further address his concerns regarding particular aspects of the agreement,” Locsin said.
A foreign affairs spokeswoman said the department was waiting for details from Duterte’s office on the specific areas of concern. Duterte’s decision also comes as China steps up incursions into Philippine waters, angering many Filipinos.
The Philippines and the US held scaled-down joint drills in April after last year’s war games were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.