Days after its much-heralded arrival in the region, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group has passed out of the South China Sea, officials announced on Monday.
The strike group, which includes the USS Stennis, Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyers USS Chung-Hoon, USS Stockdale, and USS William P. Lawrence, and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay, arrived in the South China Sea on March 1.
Its appearance in the region came amid rising tensions over China's decision to deploy HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to the disputed Woody Island in the Paracel Island chain, a move that numerous U.S. officials have described as militarization of the region against international policy.
Navy officials, however, have maintained that the ships were in the area only for standard operations and that their presence was neither intended as a show of force nor as a formal confrontation of Chinese naval forces.
The Stennis strike group completed routine operations in the South China Sea for five days and then transited into the Philippine Sea through the Luzon Strait, Navy officials said in a news release. During the strike group's transit through the region, it conducted daily flight operations with Carrier Air Wing 9 and completed a replenishment-at-sea, stocking up on supplies and fuel from the fast combat support ship Rainier.
According to the release, ships from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) remained in the vicinity of the strike group as it transited thought the sea, but bridge-to-bridge communications between the two navies remained professional.
A spokesman for U.S. Pacific Fleet, Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, told Military.com he did not believe any ships within the strike group came within 12 nautical miles of contested islands, which would have signaled a formal freedom of navigation operation within territorial seas.
The Navy conducted two "innocent passage" operations within the last six months. Last October, the guided-missile destroyer Lassen passed near the contested Subi reef and other regions within the Spratly islands. And in January, the guided-missile destroyer Curtis Wilbur passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels.
The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, told lawmakers last month that he supported continued freedom of navigation operations in order to assert U.S. rights and discredit territorial overreach in the region.
Knight said the transit of the Stennis and other ships in the strike group through the South China Sea was not linked to rising tensions in the region.
"This is a routine patrol of a U.S. carrier strike group," he said. "Our ships and aircraft operate routinely throughout the Western Pacific, including the South China Sea, and have for decades. This patrol was conducted in accordance with international law, and the United States will fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows."
Knight added that Pacific Fleet ships sailed a total of 700 days in the South China Sea over the course of 2015.
"We do have a fairly continuous presence there," he said. "We've been doing this for decades."
Other ships, including the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser Antietam and amphibious dock landing ship Ashland, also conducted routine operations within the South China Sea within the last week, according to official Navy releases.
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