MANILA - U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Friday led Philippine security officials in boarding a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing in the South China Sea, informed sources said.
At the closing ceremony of large-scale Philippine-U.S. joint military exercises earlier in the day, Carter said he will visit USS John C. Stennis, which, according to a military spokesman, is conducting routine patrol in the disputed waters.
The move could displease China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea. Other claimants of territories in the waters are the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Sources from the Philippine defense department said Carter was joined by the Southeast Asian country's Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Undersecretary Emmanuel Bautista of the government's Cabinet cluster on security and military chief Hernando Iriberri.
Before being flown to the Nimitz-class Stennis, which has more than 3,000 personnel aboard, Carter received a briefing from the Philippine armed forces' regional unit that has jurisdiction over the South China Sea.
The sources said the officials were expected to be flown back directly to Manila later in the day.
It is Carter's second visit to the South China Sea after he boarded the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier last November, an event that infuriated China.
Carter has reiterated the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea amid China's land reclamation activities and perceived militarization of its controlled territories there.
On Thursday, he said the Philippines and the United States are conducting joint maritime patrols in the said waters.
The 12-day Balikatan exercises in the Philippines drew the participation of nearly 5,000 U.S. and more than 3,000 Filipino troops as well as 85 Australian Defense Force members who took active part in the drills for the first time this year.
"The Stennis has sailed in these waters many times before, and sailed not just here in the South China but all around the vast Asia Pacific, six times in the last several years," Carter said in his remarks at the closing of the exercises.
"So far, on this deployment, it has operated near the Republic of Korea, through the Sea of Japan, in Guam, and now the South China Sea," he added.
The Stennis can accommodate 70 tactical aircraft, has two nuclear reactors and is home to more than 3,000 personnel, according to its official website.
"At a time of change in this dynamic region and democratic transitions in the Philippines and the United States, we will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder," Carter said.
"And we will continue to stand up for our safety and freedoms, for those of our friends and allies, and for the values, principles and rules-based order that has benefited many for so long," he added.
The Philippines and United States are bound by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.