A U.S. carrier strike group and amphibious ready group are in the South China Sea as tensions increase between Manila and Beijing over a Chinese maritime militia incursion into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the Navy announced on Friday.
The Theodore Roosevelt CSG and the Makin Island ARG – with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked – are drilling in the South China Sea, according to U.S. 7th Fleet.
“Combining the capabilities of the carrier strike group with those of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group sharpens our tactical skills and demonstrates our continued dedication to the security and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific,” Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, said in a Friday statement. “The combined Navy and Marine Corps team has been a stabilizing force in this region for more than a century and will continue to support all who share in the collective vision of peace, stability, and freedom of the seas.”
The exercises with the TR CSG and the three-ship ARG come as 44 Chinese maritime militia ships have remained massed off the coast of the Philippines in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef, Philippine officials said. Last month, 200 ships, identified by Chinese authorities as fishing vessels sheltering from bad weather, moved into the area around the reefs.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Defense Secretary Austin “remains concerned by the massing of Chinese maritime military vessels in the Union Bank area of the South China Sea and Chinese efforts of impeding the lawful rights of our treaty ally of the Philippines. The United States stands by our ally.”
The move of the U.S. ships into the region comes as officials in Manila have raised alarms over Chinese behavior. This week a Philippines Department of National Defense spokesman said Manila was in contact with Washington on the situation.
“We are continuously in talks with the U.S. on the matter of mutual defense,” Philippine defense spokesman Arsenio Andolong said in a statement reported by the Star Tribune newspaper in Manila.
“Both parties are committed to undertake their obligations under the  Mutual Defense Treaty so that neither stands alone in these issues involving the two states’ inherent right of self-defense.”
Late last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed the U.S. commitment to defending the Philippines if it was attacked.
The “United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the [People’s Republican of China]’s maritime militia amassing at [Whitsun Reef],” he said in late March.
“We will always stand by our allies and stand up for the rules-based international order.”
The maritime militia ships have been spotted operating with the China Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy ships.
Earlier this week, Philippine journalists approaching reefs in the South China Sea by boat were interdicted by two Type-22 Houbei PLAN catamarans.