World

US deploys 'small armada' to South China Sea

Bangkok: A United States nuclear powered aircraft carrier and a group of warships has been deployed to the flashpoint waters of the South China Sea.

The arrival of group led by the carrier USS John C. Stennis is seen as the latest signal to China that the US will continue to enforce freedom of navigation in the waters through which about US$5 trillion ($7.4 trillion) of trade is shipped each year.

The arrival of the ships came as Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for China's parliament, accused the US of massively escalating its military level in the South China Sea, further raising tensions.

"If you take a look at the matter closely, it's the US sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea," she told reporters.

The US Navy Times reported the "small armada" dispatched to the South China Sea included two destroyers, two cruisers and the Japan-based US 7th Fleet command ship Blue Ridge.

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A US Pacific Fleet spokesman played down the deployment, telling the Navy Times that US ships and planes routinely operate in the region "and have for decades".

"In 2015 alone, Pacific Fleet ships sailed about 700 combined days in the South China Sea," he said.

But the newspaper said the deployment is a clear signal to China, which claims almost all of the region and has been developing artificial islands and installing facilities including runways, missile launchers and sophisticated radar systems.

The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam have overlapping claims to the waters.

Tensions have been rising over the claims for months.

US Pacific Command head Admiral Harry Harris said in February that China was intent on militarising the South China Sea.

"You'd have to believe in a flat earth to believe otherwise," he said.

The US military said last Wednesday the US, Japan and India will hold naval exercises in disputed waters off the northern Philippines, near the South China Sea, later this year.

The US late last year obtained final approval to expand its military presence in the Philippines and has begun making spy flights over the region in Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft based in Singapore.

The Turnbull government last month released a 20-year defence blueprint to increase defence spending amid rising tensions in Asia, including China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

with agencies

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