As the international court at The Hague grapples with the Philippines’ case brought against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and while Beijing and Washington trade verbal jabs almost daily over the issue, the U.S. Navy has sent four fighter aircraft, E/A-18G Growler airborne electronic attack planes and 120 support personnel, to the Philippines to help train the country’s forces and patrol its airspace and sea lanes, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement on Thursday.
The detachment arrived at Clark Air Base, a former U.S. military base, north of Manila, on Wednesday.
“Growler aircraft will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law,” the U.S. Navy said in a statement.
A formidable adversary
The EA-18G Growler is a formidable adversary. It is a variant of the combat-proven F/A-18F Super Hornet and provides tactical jamming and electronic protection to U.S. military forces and allies around the world.
According to its manufacturer Boeing, the EA-18G Growler is the most advanced airborne electronic attack (AEA) platform in the world and is the only one in production today. It suppresses ground defenses for other strikes, and jams enemy radar while the aircrew eliminates the target. It also has its own arsenal of air-to-air missiles in order to defend itself against attack.
The 7th Fleet said that the latest detachment is part of an air contingent established by U.S. Pacific Command in April to promote interoperability and security cooperation. It will train Philippine FA-50 fighter pilots and support units located there.
Increasing U.S. presence amid South China Sea tensions
The deployment is the latest so far this year. After a ten-day joint U.S.-Philippine drill that ended in mid- April, five American A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack jets (better known as the Warthog), three H-60G Pavehawk helicopters and one MC-130H Combat Talon special forces infiltration aircraft remained behind at Clark Air Base, along with nearly 300 crew members. That month, four of the A-10Cs and two HH-60Gs flew through international airspace in the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal. The contingent wrapped up its mission later that month.
Also in April, the U.S. launched joint South China Sea patrols with the Philippines as a way to also counter China’s increased land reclamation and artificial island building in the troubled body of water.
The Navy statement on Thursday added that the U.S. has deployed similar detachments throughout the Asia-Pacific region for exercises with other allies. However, the deployment of the advanced aircraft come amid rapid developments over the last few months in the South China Sea.
This year, Washington and Manila also enhanced defense ties by implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that lets the U.S. rotate troops through the Philippines on an extended basis.
Until China increased its land reclamation activities in the last few years, such a move would have prompted considerable backlash from much of the Philippine populace. While anti-American sentiment in the former U.S. Commonwealth still lingers, it has been mitigated over worries of Chinese hegemony in the region, including China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012.
After a two month standoff between a lone Philippine naval vessel and several Chinese maritime surveillance ships, the Philippines finally withdrew, giving up effective control of the shoal even though it is clearly within the Philippines’ U.N.-mandated 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Speculation has also risen in the last few weeks that China would start land reclamation activities on Scarborough Shoal, while Washington said any land reclamation activities at Scarborough would meet a strong reply – what that reply would be has not be expanded upon.
In the background of this geopolitical drama is also unknown but highly-speculated oil and natural gas reserves – one of the reasons China has been so adamant over its South China Sea claims.
While estimates vary widely, the South China Sea could have at least 750 million barrels of oil, a median chance of around 2,000 million barrels, and a low probability (5%) of over 5,000 million barrels, according to an USGS study in 2010. The offshore basins of the South China Sea could also hold between 266 trillion cubic feet (tcf) and 500 tcf of natural gas.
This article was written by Tim Daiss from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.