• Experts say the USS Theodore Roosevelt's presence was a signal to U.S. allies in the region 
  • Beijing sent it carrier Liaoning through the Miyako Strait off southwestern Japan 
  • A Philippine had official blamed Obama for failing to stop China in 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff
  • Philippines continued to register its protest against the Chinese presence in the Whitsun reef

An aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt was sailing into the South China Sea during the weekend amid escalating tensions over a flotilla of Chinese boats manned by militia members that has stationed itself for weeks around disputed reefs off the coast of the Philippines.

The carrier group is seen as a signal to U.S. allies of Washington's resolve to back them in disputes with China, the flotilla seems to be Beijing's test of that resolve.

Other naval assets were also being deployed in the region. A Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative said citing satellite data that the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin was operating in the East China Sea and had edged close to China’s Yangtze River on Saturday, reports South China Morning Post. Beijing also sent one of its two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning, through the Miyako Strait off southwestern Japan on Saturday.

Although Beijing has defended the flotilla's presence around the reefs in the South China Sea and said it was at the Whitsun Reef to shelter from bad weather, no one is buying that argument. The Philippines recently said unauthorized structures were spotted on the reefs, which are in the country's exclusive economic zone but are also claimed by China.

In the Philippines the flotilla has evoked raw memories from 2012 when China occupied the Scarborough Shoals, which were claimed by both the countries. At that time under a deal mediated by the U.S. , China and the the Philippines had agreed to withdraw their forces from the shoal. But while Manila withdrew its forces, China continued to maintain its presence at the shoal. Today, the shoal is effectively controlled by China, which has maintained a constant coast guard presence at the feature since 2012.

In a statement that came as a break from Manila's recent soft approach to Beijing under President Rodrigo Duterte, the president's lawyer Salvador Panelo called the presence of the Chinese boats an unwelcome strain on relations. "We can negotiate on matters of mutual concern and benefit, but make no mistake about it — our sovereignty is non-negotiable," Panelo said.

Biden has said his administration was “going to hold China accountable to follow the rules” including in the South China Sea, and Washington last month said it stands by Philippines in the face of Chinese intimidation tactics. But the latest Chinese intrusion has again increased Philippines' doubts on Washington's willingness to act on behalf of its allies. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin had last year blamed the Obama administration for failing to stop China in 2012 in a sharply worded tweet.

"And when the Philippine warship challenged the Chinese coast guard and Obama said stand down and withdraw the PH ship did. The Chinese did not. Obama said, "Oh well such is life." And it's never left. Thanks America. Everybody acknowledges the U.S. cost us that reef."

The U.S. aircraft carrier's presence is seen as a signal to Washington's allies. Ben Schreer, a professor of strategic studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, told the South China Morning Post that the carrier’s passage in the South China Sea was meant signal to allies, such as the Philippines, that Washington was a “reliable and capable treaty ally.”

According to Carl Schuster, a former operations director at U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, the Chinese are testing the resolve of the Biden administration. “How the U.S. reacts will determine the next test. Right now, everything we have done is more rhetorical than substantive,” Schuster told Bloomberg. While the Biden administration reaffirmed that the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty covers any attacks in the South China Sea, Duterte has "undermined the alliance while hailing closer ties with Beijing," the report said.

By sending its own carrier to the East China Sea, China is also widening tension and forcing Washington and its allies to react. Though the PLA Navy announced Liaoning was en route to conduct “scheduled exercises" near Taiwan, it comes barely a week after Beijing warned Japan to "stop all provocative moves" over the contested Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

According to the PLA, Liaoning was sailing to "test the effectiveness of troop training, and to improve the capacity to safeguard the country’s sovereignty, safety and development interests.”

The US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea in 2018: the new administration of President Joe Biden intends to continue challenging China's territorial claims in the region
File picture of US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea in 2018. AFP / TED ALJIBE