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China Protests as U.S. Carrier Goes on Patrol With Philippine Navy

USS Carl Vinson and strike group
USS Carl Vinson under way (USN file image)

Published Jan 3, 2024 1:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has pledged to conduct patrols with the Philippine military in the South China Sea, and while the first had a low profile, the second will not. This week, the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group will carry out a two-day joint patrol with Philippine forces. If past events are any guide, the drills will draw an angry response from the government of China, which claims the vast majority of the South China Sea as its own, including parts of the Philippine exclusive economic zone. 

The carrier USS Carl Vinson leads the exercise, accompanied by cruiser USS Princeton and destroyers USS Sterett and USS Kidd. The Philippine contributions include the former U.S. Coast Guard cutters USCGC Hamilton and USCGC Dallas, which were transferred to the Philippine Navy and renamed. A small Indonesian-built amphib, BRP Davao del Sur, rounds out the group. 

The partners will carry out largely peaceful maneuvers, like cross-deck exchanges and passing exercises. 

“The maritime cooperative activity marks a significant leap in our alliance and interoperability with the United States. It also demonstrates our progress in defense capabilities and development as a world-class armed force,” said Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Romeo Brawner Jr.

The Philippines is America's oldest treaty ally in Asia, and U.S. involvement in its defense dates back to the colonial era of the late 1800s. The Philippines provides the United States with base access in multiple locations around the country, including strategic sites on Palawan and on the Luzon Strait. 

“Sailing and operating together demonstrates our commitment to improving our interoperability and information sharing with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to enhance our ability to coordinate on maritime domain awareness and other shared security interests," said the strike group's commander, Rear Adm. Carlos Sardiello. 

The joint patrols started in November, and the first was modest in scope. One lightly-armed American patrol vessel and one aircraft joined Philippine forces for a three-day operation, mostly visiting areas that are not contested by China. 

The initiative has been discussed since at least January 2023, when Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said that the arrangements were being made. The initiative is a response to heightened tensions between the Philippines and China, including a series of risky standoffs at Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine outpost within the Philippine EEZ. 

China does not approve of the joint drills, and would prefer to negotiate with Manila directly, without any support from Manila's allies. The opinion-oriented Chinese outlet Global Times (owned by state media) said Wednesday that the PLA has launched a routine two-day naval drill to coincide with the Philippine-American drill in the South China Sea. 

"The PLA patrol is pointed toward infringement and provocative actions by the Philippines and the US, and displays China’s determination and firm will in safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights," Global Times said. 

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague rejected China's sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea, finding that Beijing's preferred boundaries have no basis in international law. The court ruled in favor of the Philippines, affirming Manila's right to a standard 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China has ignored the ruling and established a large military presence in the Spratly Islands, off Palawan.

“Everyone knows who is creating trouble in the South China Sea, and who is instigating the Philippines to provoke China constantly,” Chinese military analyst Song Zhongping told Global Times. “When it comes to sovereignty, we will never back off even a bit. We will use our strength to safeguard our core interests."