A Navy officer aboard a mammoth US aircraft carrier brimming with F18 fighter jets said American forces will continue to patrol the South China Sea wherever "international law allows us" when asked if China's newly built islands could restrain them in the disputed waters.
Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told The Associated Press on Saturday aboard the USS Carl Vinson that the US Navy has carried out routine patrols in the strategic waters for 70 years to promote regional security and guarantee the unimpeded flow of trade that's crucial for Asian and US economies.
Hawkins said, "International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that's what we're doing and we're going to continue to do that."
The US Navy invited journalists on board the 35-year-old carrier, which was packed with 72 aircraft, including F18 Hornets, assault helicopters and surveillance aircraft. President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to back down from what he said was a Philippine foreign policy that was steeply oriented toward the US, but has allowed considerable engagements with his country's treaty ally while reviving once-frosty ties with China.
US Navy officials flew some of Duterte's Cabinet officials and journalists on board the Carl Vinson for a brief tour while it was patrolling the South China Sea on Wednesday.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, which straddles one of the world's busiest sea lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas.
Washington stakes no claims in the disputed region, but has declared that the peaceful resolution of the long-raging disputes, along with the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight, are in its national interest.