Peering over the deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing through a disputed part of the South China Sea , US Navy Rear Admiral George Wikoff said he’s been impressed with the professionalism of China’s navy. “They remain respectful in accordance with what we anticipate a professional would do, and we respond or initiate in kind when we believe that there is a situation,” said Wikoff aboard the USS Ronald Reagan on Wednesday, after taking over command of Task Force 70 two weeks ago. Explained: South China Sea dispute “It has been very cordial, and I think they have been very professional is really what I’d like to emphasise on both sides.” Sailing within waters China claims in its so-called “nine-dash line” off the coast of Malaysia, the US$4.5 billion supercarrier was accompanied by one destroyer and two cruisers. It was headed for Singapore as part of freedom of navigation exercises meant to counter China’s growing military presence in the region at a time when both countries are embroiled in a global trade war. China’s increasing assertiveness in huge swathes of the sea has put fellow claimants like Vietnam on edge in recent months. Beijing says its naval expansion in the area is designed to safeguard an “inalienable” part of its territory, a push that has prompted the US to warn “China is gaining effective control of the South China Sea”. The US has challenged China’s territorial claims with regular freedom of navigation missions since 2015. The most recent came last month when a guided-missile destroyer, the USS Wayne E. Meyer, passed near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. US forces are also contending with China’s rapidly growing arsenal of anti-ballistic missiles and unmanned aircraft, part of what the Pentagon has termed “anti-access/area denial” weapons. Philippine minister lashes out over South China Sea map in ‘Abominable’ film Among those showcased during a military parade in Beijing this month include the include DF-17 ballistic missiles believed capable of circumventing US defence systems. A supersonic reconnaissance drone, the DR-8, is designed to defeat air and missile defences. Still, Wikoff said he has “no concerns” about the security of US forces operating in contested waters. “I slept very well last night, I slept very well the night before and I’ll sleep very well as we transit back through the South China Sea,” he said. The Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group’s manoeuvres have captured China’s attention. China’s Ministry of Defence criticised the US for “flexing its muscles in the region” after the ships participated in war exercises this month, according to a report in the China Daily . Pompeo’s visit to Micronesia highlights US anxiety about rising Chinese influence in Pacific Although the admiral wouldn’t talk about the specifics of the carrier group’s mission in the South China Sea, he did not deny reports that the aircraft carrier was at one point being tailed by at several Chinese warships. “We’re never surprised, ever, so make that very clear,” Wikoff said. Still, he noted the mission of the USS Ronald Reagan remains “to be lethal and ready when the bell rings and the call comes to do so”.