ABOARD THE NIMITZ, SOUTH CHINA SEA, Jan 27 (Reuters) – For a few hours under gray skies, dozens of fighter jets and helicopters roar on and off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz, in a show of American military might in some of the most contested waters in the world.
MH-60 Seahawk helicopters and F/A-18 Hornet jets carrying pilot call signs such as «Fozzie Bear», «Pig Sweat» and «Bongoo» emit deafening screeches as they land in the drizzle over the Nimitz, which is leading an aircraft carrier strike group that entered the South China Sea two weeks ago.
The group’s commander, Rear Admiral Christopher Sweeney, said the tour was part of a US commitment to maintain freedom of passage through the waters and airspace of a region vital to global commerce.
«We’re going to sail, fly and operate where international standards and rules allow. We’re going to do it safely and we’re going to be resolute about it,» Sweeney told Reuters on Friday.
«It’s really about navigating and obviously operating with our allies and partners in the region and ensuring free and open commerce and trade in the Indo-Pacific for them.»
A US presence in the South China Sea, a conduit for an estimated $3.4 trillion in annual trade, has been welcomed by allies like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, but it continues to annoy rival China, which sees the exercises as provocations in its backyard.
China claims historic jurisdiction over nearly all of the South China Sea, which includes the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Beijing also holds regular drills and maintains a heavy presence of coastguards and fishing vessels away from its mainland – a frequent source of tension with its neighbours.
Nimitz Carrier Strike Group 11 includes the guided missile cruiser Bunker Hill and the guided missile destroyers Decatur, Wayne E. Meyer and Chung-Hoon. On January 5, the Chung-Hoon sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, upsetting China.
It happened two weeks after a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet sounded the alarm when it came within 3 meters of a US Air Force plane in the air. over the South China Sea.
Sweeney said it was crucial that international rules were followed and said the US presence in the South China Sea demonstrated its commitment to regional allies.
“We have operated in the same body of water as the Chinese Navy or Singapore Navy or the Philippine Navy since our arrival and everything has been safe and professional,” he said.
«We will sail, fly and operate where international waters permit, so we will not go anywhere.»
Reporting by Joseph Campbell; Written by Martin Petty; Editing by Jonathan Oatis
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