2 carriers in South China Sea, US bares

The US Navy revealed on Saturday that two aircraft carriers were conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea as China staged naval drills that drew “interest and some concern” from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The US Navy said in a statement that USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan were already carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, most likely even before China began the exercises set from July 1 to 5. ”

“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Rear Adm. George Wikoff was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the exercises.

Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the Ronald Reagan, said the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China, which the Pentagon criticized this week as “counterproductive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability.”

But China dismissed the Pentagon’s criticism and suggested the United States was to blame for increasing tensions.

‘Severest response’

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the foreign office had determined that the Chinese exercises were being held near the Paracel Islands and would not impinge on Philippine territory.

“The Chinese naval military exercises, if they stick to their coordinates, do not impinge on Philippine territory. These exercises are taking place in waters off Xisha Islands—the Paracels—over which Vietnam claims sovereignty. Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory then China is forewarned that it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate,” Locsin said in a statement on Friday.

The Philippines has consistently protested China’s intrusion into areas within the Philippines’ sovereignty.

Locsin said that while China might be entitled to hold military exercises as part of its freedom to navigate the open seas, he expressed expectation that the purpose was not to firm up Beijing’s claims over disputed areas.

“At a time like this, one would think that simulated military exercises would be more in keeping with the spirit of friendly cooperation that China has encouraged everyone to take. On the practical side, there are the open seas unless, again, the purpose is to establish a perennial and unchallenged presence that may in time congeal into right,” he said.

Outspoken China critic and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario lauded Locsin for his declared position but maritime expert Jay Batongbacal said the foreign office’s statement was “continuing mistrust over China’s unwarranted provocative actions in the South China Sea.” —WITH REPORTS FROM REUTERS, JEROME ANING AND NESTOR CORRALES

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