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US aircraft carriers hold joint drills after ASEAN lambastes Beijing over South China Sea

Official U.S. Navy photo of an F/A-18F Super Hornet from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Samantha Jetzer)

Two U.S. aircraft carriers kicked off joint exercises in the Philippine Sea on Sunday, a day after Southeast Asian leaders delivered some of their strongest remarks opposing Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds.

The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups began the drills to bolster the United States’ “responsive, flexible, and enduring commitments” to mutual defense agreements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, the Navy said in a statement.

The dual carrier exercises also came exactly a week after the Nimitz and another carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt conducted their own joint operations in the area. It is rare to see three U.S. aircraft carriers operating at the same time in the Western Pacific and even more unusual to have separate dual carrier exercises within such a quick time frame.

“We aggressively seek out every opportunity to advance and strengthen our capabilities and proficiency at conducting all-domain warfighting operations,” said Rear Adm. George Wikoff, commander Carrier Strike Group 5. “The U.S. Navy remains mission ready and globally deployed. Dual carrier operations demonstrate our commitment to regional allies, our ability to rapidly mass combat power in the Indo-Pacific, and our readiness to confront all those who challenge international norms that support regional stability.”

The statement’s focus on regional allies will add to growing pressure on China, which claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.

On Saturday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said in a statement issued by Vietnam on behalf of the 10-nation bloc that a 1982 U.N. oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the disputed waterway.

“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the ASEAN statement said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans and demarcates exclusive economic zones where coastal states have special rights to fishing and energy resources.

The South China Sea’s eastern entry points and surrounding waters have reportedly seen a flurry of military activity in recent days, including, according to a Chinese think tank, multiple surveillance missions by U.S. spy planes.

The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, which is based at Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research in Beijing, said it had chronicled the missions using flight-tracking websites and posted images alleging the flights on Twitter.

Drew Thompson, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, wrote on Twitter in response that among the planes, a pair of U.S. Navy P-8 Orions “had taken up station over an underwater target of interest, most likely a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy submarine making its way through the Bashi Channel.”

With the Reagan operating nearby, keeping a close eye on the area and creating a so-called picket line is “a standard measure to protect the carrier from Hainan-based submarines,” he wrote, referring to Hainan Island, home to a major Chinese submarine base.

Prior to last week’s joint drills, the Reagan and the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Groups conducted combined operations in the Philippine Sea in November 2018, according to the Navy, while in September 2014 the USS George Washington and USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Groups operated in the South and East China seas.

While the carrier operations are among some of the most visible moves in the region by the U.S. military, the Navy has stoked the anger of Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting so-called freedom of navigation operations close to some of the islands China occupies in the South China Sea, including its man-made islets, asserting that freedom of access is crucial to international waterways.

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the waterway, including the construction of the man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry.

The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

China’s Defense Ministry has denied it is looking to cement control of the South China Sea, accusing Washington last week of “hyping up the so-called China threat in total disregard of facts, trying to sow discord among the regional countries and stigmatize China’s anti-epidemic efforts” amid the global coronavirus outbreak.


© 2020 the Japan Times