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US, allies start naval drills in Western Pacific

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US Navy officers stand next to a helicopter on board the USS Blue Ridge during a port call at Tanjung Priok in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 1, 2019. (File photo by AFP)

The United States, Japan, South Korea, and Australia have commenced their “first-of-its-kind” combined naval drills in the vicinity of Guam, a US island territory in Micronesia, in the Western Pacific region, amid tensions with China and South Korea.

The military exercise, code-named the “Pacific Vanguard,” kicked off on Thursday, bringing together more than 3,000 sailors from the quartet to “sharpen skills and strengthen practical cooperation at sea,” said Vice Admiral Phillip Sawyer, the commander of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, in a statement.

“Pacific Vanguard joins forces from four, like-minded maritime nations that provide security throughout the Indo-Pacific based on shared values and common interests,” he said, adding that the exercise would focus on “live fire exercises, defensive counter-air operations, anti-submarine warfare, and replenishment at sea.”

The US has deployed five warships as well as fighter jets and maritime patrol planes for the six-day drills, which also include two Japanese destroyers, two Australian frigates, and a destroyer from South Korea.

The USS Blue Ridge, the Seventh Fleet’s flagship, will lead the drills.

The military exercise, the latest show of combined naval force in the Asia Pacific region, comes at a sensitive time; Washington is in the midst of an unprecedented trade war with Beijing. The  US and China are also involved in maritime tensions in the South China Sea. China claims almost all of the strategic sea in the face of rival claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The US often intervenes in the regional dispute, taking the side of China’s rival claimants.

Earlier this week, Beijing denounced a US warship sail-by near disputed islands in the South China Sea, which are believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas. 

Washington has also reached a stalemate with North Korea over the so-called denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang suspended its missile launches and nuclear tests shortly before a diplomatic thaw led to the first summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore last June.

The pair met for a second time, in Vietnam in February, but that round of talks collapsed.

The Washington-Pyongyang tensions were renewed earlier this month after the US seized North Korea’s second-largest cargo ship over what it claimed were violations of sanctions. The move prompted the North’s leader to order the military to boost its strike capability and keep “full combat posture.”

Guam, with a population of more than 160,000 people, was at the center of nuclear tensions between the US and North Korea back in 2017, with Pyongyang threatening to hit the US territory with “enveloping fire.”

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