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US carrier finds company as it conducts drills on S. China Sea

ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN, South China Sea – As the commanders of the largest US warship in Asia seek to maintain operational readiness amid protracted tensions over North Korea, they find themselves keeping one eye on China, too.

On Saturday, as F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters roared from the decks of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier during routine drills deep in the South China Sea, two Chinese frigates maintained a constant line-of-sight vigil.

Officers on the Japan-based Reagan described frequent close quarter surveillance from the ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in international waters.

Sometimes, they said, Chinese vessels steam in to check out the carrier en route to other destinations. Other times, Chinese frigates linger for days within the screen of US ships and planes that protect the Reagan – Washington’s only carrier based outside America.

At times, the carrier crew, to ensure safe passage, will alert their uninvited Chinese escorts, should the Reagan sharply alter course, officers said.

“We’ve had no issues. They’ve been very professional,” said Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, commander of the Reagan’s strike group, as well as the larger battle forces of the US Seventh Fleet. “We see them on a regular basis,” he said.

As Dalton spoke, the midnight blue waters beyond the flight decks made for a crowded scene, with a US and an allied Japanese destroyer also visible as the Reagan maneuvered some 748 kilometers from the Chinese coast. It provided a window into the strains of increased deployments and exercises by regional militaries, in part as they respond to the threat posed by Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea has staged an apparent hydrogen bomb test and fired two ballistic missiles over Japan in recent weeks. (Reuters)

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