U.S. sails carriers near South China Sea in bid to reassure Asian allies


In a massive show of strength that analysts said was meant to reassure nervous allies in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. Navy deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups for an exercise in the Philippine Sea on Saturday.

The exercises, which came ahead of a key international court ruling on China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, brought together the USS John C. Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan, and featured over 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft and six other ships, according to a statement released by the U.S. Pacific Command.

“This is a great opportunity for us to train in a high-end scenario,” Rear Adm. John D. Alexander, commander of the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based Carrier Strike Group 5, said in the statement. “We must take advantage of these opportunities to practice war-fighting techniques that are required to prevail in modern naval operations.”

The strike groups conducted air defense and sea surveillance drills in the Philippine Sea, in the Western Pacific, near the South China Sea.

U.S. Navy aircraft carriers have conducted dual carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific, including the South and East China seas and the Philippine Sea for several years, the statement 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 statement added.

As part of its “pivot” to Asia, the U.S. has strengthened security alliances and beefed up its ties with nations in the region. Beijing has slammed the moves as part of a U.S.-led “China containment policy.”

The timing of Saturday’s operations comes as Washington’s Southeast Asian allies eagerly await a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a case filed by Manila against Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line claim to much of the South China Sea.

The arbitration court is widely expected to rule in favor of the Philippines in the coming weeks or days. China has not taken part in the case and has vowed to ignore the ruling, saying the court does not have jurisdiction over the issue.

An unidentified source told The Manila Times on Wednesday that the court would announce its ruling in the case July 7. Observers had initially said the ruling was likely to come at the end of May.

China claims almost all of the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea through which more than $5 trillion in trade passes each year. Aside from the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

Beijing’s massive land-reclamation program in the contested waters, and U.S. claims that it is militarizing its outposts in the area, have prompted Washington to conduct what it calls “freedom of navigation exercises” near the Chinese-controlled islands.