The United States Navy and Marine Corps are currently conducting joint exercises in the South China Sea. This comes at a time when tensions between the US and China have risen following the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
The 7th Fleet, based in Japan, reported that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have been participating in “integrated expeditionary strike force operations.” The exercises involve ships, ground forces, and aircraft.
China claims most of the South China Sea and objects to military activity by other countries in the area, which sees the shipment of $5 trillion worth of goods each year. The US does not take an official stance on sovereignty in the South China Sea, but it believes that freedom of navigation and overflight must be preserved.
The US has also been enhancing its defense alliance with the Philippines, which has been facing pressure from the Chinese coast guard and government-backed fleets.
The joint exercises were pre-planned, but the timing of them has heightened tensions between the US and China, which were already strained due to a recent diplomatic row sparked by the shooting down of the balloon.
The US has stated that the unmanned balloon was used for intelligence gathering, while China claims it was a weather research airship that had accidentally drifted off course. The incident resulted in the cancellation of a high-stakes trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
China has taken a tough stance on the issue and has called the US move an overreaction and a violation of international norms.
The US has since blacklisted six Chinese entities and the House of Representatives has voted unanimously to condemn China for violating US sovereignty. The Pentagon has reported that the balloon was part of a large surveillance program conducted by China for several years.
In a news release, the 7th Fleet stated that the joint operation has “established a powerful presence in the region, which supports peace and stability.”
The release went on to say, “As a ready response force, we underpin a broad spectrum of missions including landing Marines ashore, humanitarian disaster relief, and deterring potential adversaries through visible and present combat power.”