US carrier starts ‘routine’ patrols in South China Sea

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The United States deployed aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the disputed waters of the South China Sea on Saturday as part of maritime “routine operations.”

USS Carl Vinson will be under US command during that period, the Navy said in a statement.

The operation comes amid growing tensions between the United States and China over territory and trade.

In a news conference Wednesday, China’s foreign ministry said it heard about the planned deployment days before it happened, and warned Washington against challenging its sovereignty.

“China respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which countries enjoy under international law, but firmly opposes any country’s attempt to undermine China’s sovereignty and security in the name of the freedom of navigation and overflight,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

The contested waters are a crucial shipping route at the heart of a territorial dispute that pits multiple countries against one another.

China has a long history of maritime disputes with its South China Sea neighbors.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including islands more than 800 miles from the Chinese mainland, despite objections from neighbors such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

Beijing has also created artificial islands in the area, outfitting some of them with military features. According to the US, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the Spratly Islands since 2014.

Satellite imagery released by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in December showed China has installed weapon systems on all seven artificial islands.

Though the US takes no position on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, its warships have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations near the reclaimed islands, eliciting warnings from Beijing.

“The training completed over the past few weeks has really brought the team together and improved our effectiveness and readiness as a strike group,” the strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral James Kilby, said in the statement. “We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”

Earlier this month, three Chinese Coast Guard ships entered waters near a chain of islands, called the Senkakus by Tokyo, which are claimed by both China and Japan in the East China Sea, according to Chinese and Japanese authorities.

The USS Carl Vinson was last deployed to the South China Sea in 2015 for bilateral exercises with Malaysia’s navy and air force, the statement said.