The United States and the UK held rare six-day joint naval drills in the disputed South China Sea, which ended on Wednesday, the two navies confirmed. The move is likely to anger China which has islands there and sees the strategic passage as its territory.
The U.S. military released a statement in which it said that between January 11 and 16, the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll conducted operations in the South China Sea.
The statement further said the communication drills, division tactics and personnel exchange conducted between Friday and Wednesday were aimed at further developing relations between the navies of the two countries as well as at addressing “common security priorities.”
“Professional engagement with our British counterparts allows us the opportunity to build upon our existing strong relationships and learn from each other,” U.S. Commander Allison Christy said in the release, adding it was a “rare opportunity” to work with the UK navy.
According to a U.S. Navy spokesperson, “There’s no record in recent history of operations together, specifically in the South China Sea.”
The last time such joint drills were held was in 2010, the spokesperson noted.
Unlike the U.S. which often conducts freedom of navigation operations in the region, this was the first time that the UK had directly challenged Beijing’s growing control of the South China Sea. Following the joint drills, China accused London of engaging in “provocation.”
Five countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – claim territories in the highly disputed and equally strategic region, contesting Beijing’s claim in the South China Sea, which it has reinforced with militarized artificial islands and where some $3 trillion of ship-borne trade passes each year.
The news of the drills comes only days after the USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Paracel Islands, antagonizing China, which accused the U.S. of trespassing in its territorial waters.