BEIJING • In a show of strength before an international court's ruling on China's claims in the South China Sea, two US aircraft carriers have started training drills in the western Pacific Ocean.
The carriers, the John C. Stennis and Ronald Reagan, sailed close together in the Philippine Sea last Saturday as part of air defence and sea surveillance operations that involved 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft and six smaller warships, the US Pacific Fleet in Hawaii said.
"We must take advantage of these opportunities to practise war-fighting techniques that are required to prevail in modern naval operations," Rear Admiral John Alexander was quoted as saying in a New York Times report last Saturday.
The operations occurred on the eastern side of the Philippines, in a body of water that is not adjacent to the South China Sea but is close by, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet said.
The message of the exercise by the two carriers and their attendant warships was unmistakable, and the timing was deliberate, a US official familiar with the planning of the operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The New York Times.
The exercise could have been conducted later, he said.
Philippine defence department spokesman Peter Galvez said the drills showed that the US was "resolute" in fulfilling its oft-repeated "iron-clad commitment" to defend the Philippines.
"We welcome the strong cooperation and partnership we have with our friends and allies... in light of (the dispute) where our legitimate rights have been overstepped," he told Agence France-Presse.
An international arbitration court in The Hague is deliberating a case filed by the Philippines in 2013 against China's claims in the South China Sea, and its decision is expected in the coming weeks.
The Philippines is challenging China's claims to what has come to be known as the nine-dash line, an area that covers almost all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the Philippine coast.
In the past two years, China has built artificial islands equipped with military runways in the Spratly archipelago, inside the line and not far from the Philippines.
Chinese activity has sparked alarm, largely because of lingering territorial disputes in the waterway.
Four Asean countries - the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei - along with Taiwan have also laid claim to territory in the area now demarcated by the Chinese.
Last week, a meeting of Asean foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart in Kunming ended in disarray because of the South China Sea issue.
An Asean media statement - issued shortly after the meeting but retracted because of Chinese pressure on two members of the grouping - registered "serious concerns" over developments in the waterway.