The United States has sailed its USS Wasp amphibious warship with F-35 aircraft, near Scarborough Shoal, a strategic reef claimed by Beijing, Manila and Taipei.
Filipino fishermen near the reef that lies just 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast spotted the massive US vessel on Tuesday, according to ABS-CBN News.
In a video released along with the report, planes were seen landing and taking off from the ship, some 5 km (3 miles) away from the fishermen’s boat.
“The Wasp has been training with Philippine Navy ships in Subic Bay and in international waters of the South China Sea … for several days,” US military spokeswoman told Japan Times.
Scarborough Shoal was formerly administered by the Philippines. In 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, China sent warships to invade the shoal, the administration of the shoal was taken by People's Republic of China. China later effectively blockaded the lagoon, which is rich in fish stocks, and routinely dispatches scores of fishing vessels and government-backed “maritime militia” ships to the area to continue its de facto blockade.
According to experts, control over Scarborough would create a large “strategic triangle” comprising Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to the northwest and its Spratly islet outposts to the south, giving Beijing the ability to police an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.
The US was expected to defend the territory of the Philippines during the standoff as the two nations had a Mutual Defense Treaty. But America chose to distance itself from the tension, and verbally protested against China instead.
The incident strained Philippines-China relations and Philippines-US relations, with some Filipino officials calling the US an “unreliable ally.”
“The Wasp was taking part in the annual Balikatan US-Philippine military training exercise that focuses on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges,” said US Marine Corps Second Lt. Tori Sharpe, a spokeswoman for the exercises.
The Wasp’s presence in the South China Sea is likely to draw Beijing’s attention since the exercise is the first to incorporate the Wasp paired with the US Marines Corps’ F-35B Lightning II stealth aircraft.
“Together they represent an increase in military capability committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Sharpe said.
The US Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the site in January last year as part of its larger “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) program in the South China Sea and across the globe.