US Navy aircraft carrier strike group enters the South China Sea

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A US Navy aircraft carrier strike group has begun patrols in the South China Sea.

The move comes amid growing tensions over the contested waters, and fears the resource-rich shipping lane could become a major flashpoint under the Trump administration.

As we have reported (here, here and here) strong words over the sovereignty of the sea have recently been exchanged between Washington and Beijing.

Earlier this week, China’s Foreign Ministry again warned Washington against challenging its sovereignty.

The US Navy said the force, including Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, began “routine operations” in the waters yesterday (Saturday, February 18).

The operation was announced on the USS Vinson’s Facebook page.

The strike group’s commander, Rear Admiral James Kilby, said that weeks of training in the Pacific had already improved the group’s effectiveness and readiness.

“We are looking forward to demonstrating those capabilities while building upon existing strong relationships with our allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region,” he was quoted as saying by the Navy News Service.

Friction between the US and China over trade and territory under President Trump have increased concerns that the South China Sea could become a flashpoint.

An increasingly assertive China wrapped up its own naval exercises in the waters on Friday (read more here).

Last week, we reported (here) on a near miss between Chinese and American military aircraft.

China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea — also known as the West Philippine Sea — through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also have territorial claims. As we have reported (here), last year a tribunal in the Hague ruled in the Philippines favour over the sovereignty of part of the sea.

In the run up to his election victory soon after, President Duterte vowed to ride a jet ski to Scarborough Shoal and personally enforce the decision. However, since then he had rowed back on this stance, preferring instead to build stronger relationship with China.

The United States has criticised Beijing’s construction of man-made islands and build-up of military facilities in the sea, and expressed concern they could be used to restrict free movement.

Russia is also getting involved in the region, with a “goodwill visit” to by its navy to Manila late last year. (Read more here.)