U.S. warplanes conduct operation near key Chinese-held reef in South China Sea

A contingent of six U.S. military aircraft that were left behind in the Philippines after the conclusion of joint exercises this month have conducted their first air and maritime situational awareness flights near disputed territory in the South China Sea.

U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement released Friday that four A-10C Thunderbolt IIs, commonly known by the nickname of “warthogs,” and two HH-60G Pave Hawks departed from Clark Air Base on Luzon island on Tuesday, flying through international airspace in the vicinity of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, just 230 km west of the Philippines.

“Our job is to ensure air and sea domains remain open in accordance with international law. That is extremely important. International economics depends on it — free trade depends on our ability to move goods,” said Col. Larry Card, the air contingent commander.

The flights come as the focus in the South China Sea — where Beijing has ramped up its massive land-reclamation program — has shifted to the tiny triangular shoal. The Philippines’ ambassador to the United States said earlier this month that a top U.S. Navy official had reported what was believed to be a Chinese survey ship in the vicinity of the shoal. Officials in Manila reportedly fear Beijing may be taking steps to turn the Chinese-held shoal, which is also claimed by Manila and Taipei, into another man-made island.

China has maintained a steady presence at the reef, which is well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile (370-km) economic exclusion zone, since it seized it more than four years ago. In the event of a crisis, any deployment of missile batteries would put at risk not only the Philippine military, but also U.S. forces in the country.

In response to China’s moves in the waters, the U.S. has stepped up what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, including one in October and another in January. Media reports have said that another such operation could come as early as this month.

The moves come ahead of an eagerly anticipated ruling on China’s claims to the South China Sea in an arbitration case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that is widely expected to go in favor of the Philippines. A ruling that sides with Manila is likely to further exacerbate tensions in the strategic waterway, through which $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

China has declined to take part in the case. A ruling is likely to come in the next several weeks.

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