Military activity in the South China Sea surged over the weekend, as Chinese aircraft carriers entered the region and a US Navy expeditionary group completed joint exercises.
The US and the Philippines are preparing for joint exercises as the US Secretary of Defense proposes ways to deepen military cooperation between Washington and Manila. This comes after China deployed ships in disputed waters.
China's state-run Global Times on Sunday (11/4/2021) said the country's first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, sailed into the South China Sea on Saturday (10/4/2021).
The ship previously completed a week of naval exercises around Taiwan.
There is no official announcement about Liaoning's position. But Chinese tabloids cite satellite images first reported by US media outlet The War Zone.
The reported arrival of the Liaoning in the South China Sea comes after the US Navy expeditionary ship, fronted by the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island, conducted drills in the South China Sea the day before. The two flat-top warships are joined by the smaller cruiser, destroyer and amphibious ship.
The ships also carry hundreds of Marine ground troops from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit as well as support helicopters and F-35 fighter jets.
"The force of this expeditionary strike fully demonstrates that we maintain a trustworthy fighting force capable of responding to all possibilities, deterring aggression, and providing regional security and stability in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific," said US Navy Captain Stewart Bateshansky, Commodore, Amphibian Squadron 3, launched CNN on Tuesday (13/4/2021).
The Global Times quoted Chinese military expert Wei Dongxu as saying that the US Navy exercise was a provocation.
"Exercises by Chinese aircraft carriers can establish a broader maritime defense position, guard China's coastal areas and guard US military activity," the report said, citing Wei.
But one US analyst described Liaoning's presence in the South China Sea as commonplace for spring, when weather conditions are conducive to training.
"Liaoning came down there this whole year (to practice) air defense training and direct fire," said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center.
US-Philippines joint exercise
On Monday (12/4/2021), more than 1,700 US and Philippine troops started two weeks of military training, as reported by Reuters, citing Philippine military chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.
It was reported that the exercise will focus on testing the readiness of US and Philippine forces to respond to events such as extremist attacks and natural disasters.
They come after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday proposed to his Manila counterpart, Delfin Lorenzana, a way to deepen ties between the US and Philippine militaries, a Pentagon statement said.
The proposal includes ways to raise situational awareness of threats in the South China Sea, particularly following the recent appearance of Chinese maritime militia ships on Whitsun Reef, "in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines on Spratly Island.
Washington and Manila are bound by a mutual defense agreement. Officials said the agreement could take effect if there was Chinese military action against a Philippine government vessel in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef.
Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Saturday (10/4/2021) tweeted that he would fight so that attacks on Philippine civilian aircraft of any kind would receive mutual defense assistance, CNN Philippines reported.
Locsin's comments came after Philippine news crews said last week their charter ship was being chased by a Chinese missile boat as it approached a disputed shoal on Spratly Island, CNN Philippines reported.
China claims nearly all of the 1.3 million square miles of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, facing claims from the Philippines and other countries.
In recent years, Beijing has turned a disputed feature in the region into an artificial island, complete with military fortifications.
Beijing accuses Washington and other foreign navies of fueling tensions in the region. One of them by sending warships like the current expedition group led by the aircraft carrier Roosevelt.