U.S. Navy plays in China's backyard

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U.S. Navy plays in China's backyard HONG KONG, China -- The U.S. Navy has held an unusually large exercise in the South China Sea, three days before sending a battle group into Hong Kong for a routine port call.

There was no immediate response from the Chinese government to the Friday drill by two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, described by the U.S. Navy as a "rare meeting at sea."

But one defense analyst told The Associated Press on Saturday that it was a show of force to China.

Although Beijing claims the entire South China Sea as its territory and has garrisoned several islands, the United States and other major powers do not recognize the region as Chinese territory.

Other Asian countries -- including Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei -- also have territorial claims in the area.

15,000 personnel The USS Constellation and the USS Carl Vinson conducted the one-day training exercise, a spokesman of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet told AP through the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong Saturday. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

The spokesman said 14 vessels, at least 130 naval aircraft, more than 20 U.S. Air Force aircraft, and more than 15,000 personnel joined forces in the exercise.

The operation, which involved tests of complex air traffic control procedures and ship maneuvering was conducted amid an ongoing, large-scale Chinese military drill off its southeast coast opposite Taiwan.

Pro-Beijing media here have dubbed the Chinese war games near Dongshan Island in Fujian province as the country's "largest and most advanced" ever, involving tens of thousands of troops, fighter jets, warships and missiles.

Clear message But independent defense analyst Paul Beaver said the two American aircraft carriers are "very potent forces" that almost outstrip the whole of the Chinese military power.

"The Americans did these things for a reason," said London-based Beaver. "There's no doubt that this is a clear message being sent that America still cares about the Taiwan Strait situation."

The U.S. Navy spokesman, however, denied the drill was intended as a display of force in response to the Chinese war games.

"There is no intent to send a specific message to the People's Republic of China," he said.

Relations between the United States and China have improved recently after slumping to their lowest point in two years after a diplomatic spat over an April 1 collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), August 18, 2001

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