ABOARD USS CARL VINSON, Philippines (AP) — A Navy officer aboard a mammoth U.S. aircraft carrier brimming with F18 fighter jets said Saturday that American forces would continue to patrol the South China Sea wherever "international law allows us" when asked if China's newly built islands could restrain them in the disputed waters.
Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told The Associated Press on board the USS Carl Vinson that the Navy has carried out routine patrols at sea and on air in the strategic waters for 70 years to promote regional security and guarantee the unimpeded flow of trade that's crucial for Asian and U.S. economies.
"International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that's what we're doing and we're going to continue to do that," Hawkins said on the flight deck of the 95,000-ton warship, which anchored at Manila Bay while on a visit to the Philippines.
When President Donald Trump came to power, Southeast Asian officials were uncertain how deep the U.S. would get involved in the issues in the South China Sea, where his predecessor, Barack Obama, was a vocal critic of China's increasingly aggressive actions to assert its territorial claims.
"We're committed," Hawkins told reporters. "We're here."
In December, the Trump administration outlined a new security strategy that emphasized countering China's rise and reinforcing the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where Beijing and Washington have accused each other of stoking a dangerous military buildup and fought for wider influence.
Washington stakes no claims in the disputed region, but has declared that the peaceful resolution of the long-raging disputes, along with the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, are in its national interest.
U.S. officials have said American warships will continue so-called freedom of navigation operations that challenge China's territorial claims in virtually the entire South China Sea, including on seven artificial islands China built mostly from submerged reefs in the Spratly archipelago. That places Washington in a continuing collision course with China's interests in the volatile region.
In January, China accused the U.S. of trespassing in its territorial waters when the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Hopper sailed near the Chinese-guarded Scarborough Shoal, which is disputed by Beijing and Manila. After voicing a strong protest, China said it would take "necessary measures" to protect its sovereignty.
The nuclear-powered Carl Vinson patrolled the disputed sea prior to its Manila visit but did not conduct a freedom of navigation operation, Hawkins said. "That's not to say that we won't or we can't, but we have not, up to this point," he said.
China has also opposed the Philippine military's deployment of a Japanese-donated Beechcraft King Air patrol plane in late January to Scarborough, a Philippine official said on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly. Chinese officials have relayed their objection to their Philippine counterparts, the official said.
China and Japan have their own territorial rifts in the East China Sea.
There was no immediate comment from Philippine military officials about China's opposition to the surveillance flights at Scarborough using Japanese or even Philippine aircraft.
U.S. and Chinese officials have declared they have no intention of going to war in the disputed sea, but their governments have projected their firepower and clout in a delicate play of gunboat diplomacy and deterrence.
"We're prepared to conduct a spectrum of operations, whether that's providing humanitarian assistance, disaster relief in the time of an emergency, or whether we have to conduct operations that require us to send strike fighters ashore," Hawkins said. "We don't have to use that spectrum, but we're ready to, in case we need to."
The U.S. Navy invited journalists Saturday on board the 35-year-old Carl Vinson, which was packed with 72 aircraft, including F18 Hornets, assault helicopters and surveillance aircraft. President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to back down from what he said was a Philippine foreign policy that was steeply oriented toward the U.S., but has allowed considerable engagements with his country's treaty ally to continue while reviving once-frosty ties with China in a bid to bolster trade tries and gain infrastructure funds.
U.S. Navy officials flew some of Duterte's Cabinet officials as well as journalists Wednesday on board the carrier, where they viewed F18 jets landing and taking off as the ship patrolled the South China Sea. There are reports that the Carl Vinson will also visit Vietnam in its current deployment in the region, but Hawkins declined to provide details of future trips.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, where a bulk of the trade and oil that fuel Asia's bullish economies passes through.