In the latest of a series of provocative military exercises near Chinese territorial waters, the USS Stennis and USS Ronald Reagan began conducting air defense drills, long range strikes, and sea surveillance in the Philippine Sea over the weekend.
“No other Navy can concentrate this much combat power on one sea,” said US Rear Adm. Marcus Hitchcock, carrier strike group commander, according to Defense News. “It was truly impressive.”
These drills are aimed at what Washington views as Beijing’s growing influence in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has expressed outrage over China’s construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The US has accused China of using the islands in an attempt to establish an air defense zone, while China maintains it has every right to build within its own territory and that the islands will be primarily used for humanitarian purposes.
While China lays claims to most of the South China Sea, there are conflicting claims by Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The aircraft carrier drills appear to be the latest attempt by the US to inflame those disputes.
“[This] has been a great opportunity for us to train on how we would operate multiple carrier strike groups in a contested environment,” said US Rear Adm. John Alexander.
Peter Galvez, a spokesman for the Philippine defense department, also praised the Pentagon’s efforts.
“We welcome the strong cooperation and partnership we have with our friends and allies…in light of [the dispute] where our legitimate rights have been overstepped,” he said.
The Philippine Sea also neighbors the East China Sea, where Beijing has an ongoing dispute with Tokyo over a string of small islands.
Last week, the USS Stennis claimed that a Chinese ship had shadowed the aircraft carrier as it left the South China Sea.
“There is a Chinese vessel about seven to 10 miles away,” Captain Gregory C. Huffman, commander of the Stennis, told reporters.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang denied the allegations.