US, UK hold rare joint drills in South China Sea

Move likely to antagonize Beijing

By BEN WESTCOTT, CNN
Konstandinos Goumenidis/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (DDG 85)

(CNN) - The US and the UK finished six days of coordinated drills in the South China Sea on Wednesday, in a move likely to antagonize Beijing, which views a large swathe of the contested sea as its territory.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the US military announced the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, and the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll conducted operations in the South China Sea between January 11 and 16.

According to the US, the two vessels conducted communications drills, division tactics and a personnel exchange during the week, to help "develop relationships" between the two navies.

"Professional engagement with our British counterparts allows us the opportunity to build upon our existing strong relationships and learn from each other," US Cmdr. Allison Christy said in the release, adding it was a "rare opportunity" to work with the UK navy.

The US regularly holds freedom of navigation operations and exercises in the South China Sea to emphasize its rights to travel in the region, but the UK has only recently ramped up its presence in the contested sea.

UK Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson even floated the idea of a new British military base in the Asia region in an interview earlier this year with the Sunday Telegraph.

The Chinese government would likely take a dim view to an increased UK presence in the region, given historical tensions between the two countries' navies and the intimate role the UK played in China's "century of humiliation."

The release said the Argyll was deployed to the region to "support ... regional security and stability." Both the US and the UK conducted anti-submarine warfare drills with the Japanese military in the region in December.

Tensions have been steadily rising again in the South China Sea in the past year after a period of calm following US President Donald Trump's inauguration in January 2017.

At least five countries claim territory in the highly strategic region, but Beijing has reinforced its wide-ranging claims with militarized artificial islands which are capable of hosting missiles and bombers.

The news of the drills comes less than a week after Beijing reacted furiously to the USS McCampbell sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Paracel Islands. The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the US of trespassing in its territorial waters.

On January 8 Chinese state media CCTV announced Beijing had deployed DF-26 ballistic missiles to China's remote northwest plateau, which it claimed were "capable of targeting medium and large ships."

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