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International relations

US Navy stresses Asia commitment with drills under China's nose

Carrier commander vows to 'preserve our capability, should it be needed'

An F/A-18 Hornet is positioned for takeoff on the USS Ronald Reagan during Keen Sword, an exercise with Japan that began in the Philippine Sea on Nov. 3. (Photo by Mitsuru Obe)

ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN -- The U.S. Navy this week signaled its resolve to maintain a strong presence in the Indo-Pacific region, holding its largest joint exercise with Japan of the year.

The exercise, called Keen Sword, "demonstrates the United States' and Japan's strong commitments to a free and open Indo-Pacific region," Rear Adm. Karl Thomas told reporters on Saturday aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier.

The two countries have dispatched a total of 57,000 sailors and other personnel for the drills south of Japan, in the Philippine Sea.

Thomas' message came amid growing talk of a new Cold War between the U.S. and China, as Beijing hones its technology and seeks to wield influence over much of Asia and its seas.

China continues to build artificial islands in the South China Sea -- one of the world's busiest trade thoroughfares -- and deploy anti-ship and anti-air missiles there. These moves raise the question of whether China's military modernization is for its own defense or for hegemonic goals.

Thomas commands Carrier Strike Group Five, the Navy's largest battle force, centered on the nuclear-powered Reagan. CSG5 is part of the Seventh Fleet -- based in Yokosuka, Japan -- alongside logistics, reconnaissance and mine-sweeping task forces.

China is not the only security concern in the region. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has yet to give up his country's nuclear weapons capabilities, despite U.S. President Donald Trump's diplomatic engagement with the regime. Only last year, Pyongyang threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

U.S. Rear Adm. Karl Thomas speaks to journalists aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. (Photo by Mitsuru Obe)

"Obviously there is a lot going on right now on the [Korean] Peninsula and I am very encouraged by the discussions," Thomas said, stressing that the Navy will remain vigilant.

"Our work with Japan, with the Philippines and with all the navies in this part of the world is about stabilizing."

The 10-day military exercise, which kicked off this past Monday, involves the ground, sea and air components of American and Japanese forces. The countries were also expected to practice amphibious maneuvers designed to defend or retake remote Japanese islands. China routinely patrols around the Senkaku Islands, which are held by Japan. Beijing disputes Japan's sovereignty over the islets.

A small group of journalists were invited to board the Reagan for a firsthand look at the ship's ability to strike hostile targets.

"We bring a lot of air power to this exercise," Thomas said. "Everyday, we launch and recover many, many aircraft. That's a capability that Ronald Reagan can bring and move around anywhere and launch from anywhere."

The Reagan, which is 333 meters long and weighs about 100,000 tons, carries F/A-18 Hornet fighter bombers, E-2 Hawkeye patrol planes and SH-60 Seahawk patrol helicopters. The total aircraft count comes to 75, including about 50 Hornets. The vessel is shadowed by cruise-missile equipped cruisers and destroyers for defense.

Although China is mounting a challenge to American firepower -- the country now has two aircraft carriers, is building a third and possibly a fourth, and spends as much on its military as the rest of Asia combined -- the Reagan's captain emphasized the U.S. is staying on top of the competition.

"The United States develops on an everyday basis and integrates those [advances] into our plans and exercises," Captain Pat Hannifin said.

"We integrate those with our closest allies, such as Japan and Canada, on a regular basis. So it's a constant development and we work closely with our partners and allies around the world."

Canada joined the maritime portion of Keen Sword for the first time this year. And Thomas stressed that the U.S. will continue to build its network of alliances to deal with any challenge.

"That ability for us to work together, no matter if we are from Japan or the U.S., no matter if we are the Air Force or the Navy, that's the real power of what the Ronald Reagan brings to this exercise."

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