The entry of the United States Navy’s Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG) in the South China Sea came as a ‘welcome development’ in the exercise of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the tension-filled waters, a top Philippine Navy official disclosed Wednesday, April 7.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet said that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea on April 4 to conduct “routine operations.”
The US battle group is consisted of the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), Destroyer Squadron 23, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG 59).
“Per UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], the Theodore Roosevelt Battle Group’s entry in the South China Sea is a welcome development in the exercise of the freedom of navigation,” Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy, told the Manila Bulletin.
The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group’s transit in the South China Sea came two days after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded China to recall the 44 vessels monitored at the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
These were part of around 220 trawlers that were spotted near the reef since March 1 but some of them were already dispersed in other parts of the West Philippine Sea and Kalayaan Island Group, according to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS).
While in the South China Sea, the US Navy 7th Fleet said that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group “will conduct fixed and rotary-wing flight operations, maritime strike exercises, anti-submarine operations, coordinated tactical training, and more.”
The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group departed San Diego, California for a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific on December 23, the US Navy 7th Fleet said.
It is the second time that the US battle group entered the South China Sea as it reportedly conducted a maritime exercise with the Indian navy and air force in the Bay of Bengal at the end of March, according to current affairs magazine The Diplomat.
“It is great to be back in the South China Sea to reassure our allies and partners that we remain committed to freedom of the seas,” said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Carrier Strike Group Nine.
Several lawmakers and maritime experts have urged the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to conduct joint patrol operations in the vast waters of South China Sea with the US, the Philippines’ long-time ally, to resist Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
House Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez believes that a more frequent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea by Manila and Washington would “challenge China’s claim over most of the South China Sea, including international waters and a large part of the Philippine EEZ [exclusive economic zone].”
“They should support their statements of support for the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea dispute with actual actions on the ground,” he said.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario also called on the government to reconsider holding joint patrols with the US which, he said, was already approved before but shelved by President Duterte.
“An agreement on joint patrols with the US was approved but this was shelved by the administration of President duterte, fearing that China would be displeased,” Del Rosario said.