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US conducts military drills in South China Sea amid tensions with China


BEIJING — The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are holding joint exercises in the South China Sea at a time of heightened tensions with Beijing over the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.

The 7th Fleet based in Japan said Sunday that the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier strike group and the 13th Marine Expedition­ary Unit have been conducting “integrated expedition­ary strike force operations” in the South China Sea.

It said exercises involving ships, ground forces and aircraft took place Saturday but gave no details on when they began or whether they had ended.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and objects to military activity by other nations in the contested waterway through which $5 trillion in goods are shipped every year.

The U.S. takes no official position on sovereignt­y in the South China Sea, but maintains that freedom of navigation and overflight must be preserved. Several times a year, it sends ships sailing past fortified Chinese outposts in the Spratly Islands, prompting furious protests from Beijing.

The U.S. has also been strengthen­ing its defense alliance with the Philippine­s, which has faced encroachme­nt on islands and fisheries by the Chinese coast guard and nominally civilian but government-backed fleets.

The U.S. military exercises were planned in advance. They come as already tense relations between Washington and Beijing have been exacerbate­d by a diplomatic row sparked by the balloon shot down last weekend in U.S. airspace off the coast of South Carolina.

The U.S. said the unmanned balloon was equipped to detect and collect intelligen­ce signals, but Beijing insists it was a weather research airship that had blown off course.

The incident prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a trip to Beijing last weekend aimed at easing tensions.

The balloon was part of a large surveillan­ce program that China has been conducting for several years, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. says Chinese balloons have flown over dozens of countries across five continents in recent years, and it learned more about the program after monitoring the one shot down near South Carolina.

In its news release, the 7th Fleet said the joint operation had “establishe­d a powerful presence in the region, which supports peace and stability.”

“As a ready response force, we underpin a broad spectrum of missions including landing Marines ashore, humanitari­an disaster relief, and deterring potential adversarie­s through visible and present combat power,” the release said.

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