Thousands of Marines aboard an assault vessel joined a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group sailing in the South China Sea on Friday for integrated military exercises in disputed waters China has claimed as its maritime territory.
The Marine Corps flattop USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship equipped with thousands of Marines, helicopters and tilt-rotor troop transports, joined the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier for the integrated operations on Friday, the Navy said in a statement.
“This expeditionary strike force fully demonstrates that we maintain a combat-credible force, capable of responding to any contingency, deter aggression, and provide regional security and stability in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Navy Capt. Stewart Bateshansky, commodore, Amphibious Squadron 3.
The Navy described the activities as coordinated strike groups of ships and aircraft carrying out exercises “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The exercises of the expeditionary strike force included tactical maneuvering and working out joint command, control and communications of the Navy and Marine forces, the Navy said.
The strike groups include a squadron of MV-22 tilt-rotor transports and some 2,200 Marines of the 15th Marines Expeditionary Unit, an air-ground task force used for rapid-response military operations.
Navy and Marine Corps spokesmen would not say whether Chinese warships or aircraft monitored the operations or tried to disrupt the exercises.
Chinese warships in the past attempted to order American warships out of the South China Sea, claiming Beijing owns some 90 percent of the waterway. The Navy has refused asserting that the South China Sea is an open international waterway.
Chinese military warships were detected in the area of the carrier operations but did not disrupt the activities.
“All interactions with foreign military forces during expeditionary strike force operations were consistent with international norms and did not impact the operation,” a Navy official said.
The U.S. government has rejected China’s expansive maritime claims under an international tribunal ruling several years ago that called the claims illegal.
“The combined Navy and Marine Corps team has been a stabilizing force in this region for more than a century and will continue to support all who share in the collective vision of peace, stability and freedom of the seas,” said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander, Carrier Strike Group Nine.
The carrier group includes the Roosevelt, the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill and the guided-missile destroyer USS Russell. as well as an air wing that includes F/A-18 jets and MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.
Along with the Makin Island are the amphibious transport dock ships USS Somerset and USS San Diego, two helicopter squadrons and a battalion landing team. The Navy did not specify where the exercises were taking place.
China is currently in a standoff with the Philippines over the massing of some 200 Chinese vessels near the disputed Whitson Reef that is claimed by Manila.
The Philippines has demanded that the Chinese vessels — which Filipino officials have said are crewed by Chinese maritime militia — depart from the reef.
China so far has refused.