MANILA • The US sent a fighter-jet-carrying warship to join drills near the disputed Scarborough Shoal for the first time, sending a pointed message to China as tensions simmer over territorial claims in the region.
The USS Wasp — an amphibious assault ship outfitted last year with F-35B jets — joined the annual Exercise Balikatan with the Philippines this month.
A ship matching the USS Wasp’s description was spotted in waters “near the Scarborough Shoal”, a feature occupied by China since a tense standoff in seven years ago, the Philippines’ ABS-CBN News reported on Tuesday.
The USS Wasp didn’t pass within 25 nautical miles (46.3km) of the shoal, according to a US defence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The figure suggests that the ship wasn’t conducting a so-called freedom of navigation operation, a practice criticised by China that the US uses to assert international sailing rights within 12 nautical miles of disputed features.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday that he hopes “non-regional forces don’t stir up troubles in the South China Sea”.
The moves come as officials in Manila escalate protests over the presence of more than 200 Chinese ships near the Philippine-occupied South China Sea feature of Thitu. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has urged China to “lay off” the feature, saying he would order a military action. — Bloomberg