U.S. Navy Deploys 4 Growler Aircraft,120 Troops to Philippines Amid South China Sea Tensions

IN FLIGHT, IN FLIGHT : This aerial photograph taken from a military aircraft shows alleged on-going reclamation by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, on May 11, 2015. The Spratlys are considered a potential Asian flashpoint, and claimant …

The U.S. Navy has deployed four E/A-18G Growler aircraft and 120 troops have arrived to assist the Philippines with monitoring its sea borders amid continuing tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Stars and Stripes reports that the U.S. carrier-based electronic warfare planes and Navy personnel arrived at the former American Clark Air Base in the Philippines’ northernmost island, Luzon, on Wednesday. The detachment will train Philippine military pilots and “support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law,” said the U.S. 7th Fleet in a statement issued Wednesday.

According to the 7th Fleet, the VAQ-138 expeditionary squadron detachment from Whidbey Island, WA is at least the second American military group to deploy to the Philippines since Pacific Command established a new U.S. air contingent program in April. The contingent was approved by “the Government of the Philippines to promote interoperability and security cooperation,” notes the Navy fleet, adding that the Philippine military “offered to host the U.S. Air Contingent at Clark Air Base to train with their FA-50 fighter pilots and support units which are located there.”

China, which claims to own virtually the entire South China Sea, has built numerous artificial islands on the reefs of the region’s Spratly Islands and used them to develop military and civilian infrastructure. The Spratly Islands have become the epicenter of mounting tensions between China and the United States.

China has asserted ownership of both natural and artificial islands in the South China Sea. “In recent years, satellite imagery has shown China’s increased efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating altogether new islands. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Spratly Islands,” reports the Council on Foreign Relations.

Six nations — China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia — have competing claims over the South China Sea region, a vital waterway through which more than $5 trillion of trade sails each year. In response to China’s growing aggression in asserting territorial claims and carrying out military-style operations near Philippine shores, the Filipino government has recently sought new support from the United States.

“The assistance comes amid concerns that China’s artificial island-building in the South China Sea will target Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 140 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon,” reports Stars and Stripes, to the recent U.S. Navy deployment to the Philippines. “The shoal is little more than a few rocks jutting out of the water at high tide but is claimed by both the Philippines and China.”

“U.S. officials have discussed helping the Philippines build a ‘credible minimum deterrent’ to defend and monitor its borders,” it adds. “Long focused on internal security, the Philippines needs more ships and aircraft to watch over the waters surrounding its many islands, according to regional security analysts.”

In January, the highest court in the Philippines approved the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the United States to deploy troops to Philippine bases on extended rotations. “The agreement does not allow the U.S. to control its own bases on Philippine soil, as it did with Clark Air Base and Naval Base Subic Bay until the early 1990s,” points out Stars and Stripes.