ON BOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT, South China Sea — As fighter jets streaked overhead, a U.S. aircraft carrier sailed through the South China Sea in the latest display of America’s military might after China built a string of islands with military facilities to assert its claims in the strategic waters, sparking regional alarm.
The U.S. Navy flew a small group of Philippine generals, officials and journalists to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, where fighter jets landed and took off with thunderous blasts. The carrier, and its 65 supersonic F18 jets, spy planes and helicopters, was en route to Manila.
U.S. deployments of aircraft carriers that perform freedom of navigation exercises in Beijing’s territorial claims reassure allies but also prompt concerns with China’s own show of force in the busy waterway.
“It’s a showcase of the capability of the U.S. armed forces not only by sea but also by air,” said Philippine army Lt. Gen. Rolando Bautista after joining a tour of the 97,000-ton carrier.
“The Americans are friends. They can help us deter any threat,” Bautista said. “American military presence helps secure vulnerable Philippine waters.”
Twice this year, the U.S. Navy has deployed destroyers in freedom of navigation sail-bys near Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing wrestled from the Philippines in 2012, and Mischief Reef, which China occupied in 1995.
Another U.S. carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, patrolled the contested waters last March, taking part in anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea with Japanese forces and visiting Vietnam with its 5,000-strong crew.
China has protested those moves, calling it U.S. meddling in an Asian conflict, and renewed warnings to Washington to stay away. Beijing has also reportedly been holding large-scale naval exercises in the area featuring its only operating aircraft carrier.
“What we see now is a show of force and a counter show of force in the South China Sea,” said Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser.
Despite such fears and occasional exchanges of rhetoric, U.S. Rear Admiral Steve Koehler told reporters on board the Roosevelt that it has been smooth sailing so far, with US, Chinese and other forces engaging each other professionally.
Washington stakes no claims in the territorial disputes but has declared that their peaceful resolution and the maintenance of freedom of navigation are in its national interest.
American officials have said U.S. Navy ships will continue sailing close to Chinese-occupied areas without prior notice, placing Washington in a continuing collision course with China’s interests. (SOURCE: Associated Press)