Show of solidarity: top Philippine officials fly to US carrier in disputed region of South China Sea
Engagements continue despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to scale back engagements with US forces to get closer to China and Russia
The Philippine defence chief and two other cabinet members yesterday toured a US aircraft carrier patrolling the disputed South China Sea on the invitation of the Navy, US embassy officials said.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre visited the USS Carl Vinson along with three Philippine security officials, according to US embassy spokeswoman Molly Koscina.
The visit demonstrates continued top-level engagements between Philippine officials and the US military despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to scale back engagements with US forces to get closer to China and Russia.
The US ambassador to Manila, Sung Kim, accompanied Philippine officials to the Carl Vinson, where they watched F18 fighter jets land and take off on catapult on the flight deck and met US navy commanders in charge of the 95,000-ton carrier as it sailed in the disputed waters, Koscina said.
US Navy officials told a group of journalists who were flown to the Carl Vinson on Friday that the US warship deployment was aimed to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, a key waterway for global commerce and security.
“We will be here,” Rear Admiral James Kilby told the journalists. “We’re going to continue to demonstrate that international waters are waters where everyone can sail, where everyone can conduct commerce and merchant traffic.”
Kilby’s comments and the presence of the carrier in the South China Sea are aimed at reassuring US allies, who have expressed concerns over China’s aggressive actions to assert its claims to virtually all of the South China Sea. The nuclear-powered Carl Vinson is part of a US strike group comprising 12 warships and nine aircraft squadrons.
In recent years, China has turned seven mostly submerged disputed reefs into islands where Beijing is now reportedly installing a missile defence system. Chinese officials have stressed they have a right to carry out those constructions in what they say are their territories and add they have no hostile intentions in the region.
“There is a lot of worry about what China’s intentions are,” said Ernest Bower, a senior adviser for the Southeast Asia programme of Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “I think the question everyone has is: ‘[are] the Chinese trying to shut down access to the South China Sea?’” Boyer told reporters. “The Americans are saying under no circumstances would that be acceptable to the international community.”