Group of warships sailing (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force/U.S. Navy)
Naval vessels from the U.S., Japan, India and the Philippines conduct formation exercises and communication drills in the South China Sea, May 2019. (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force/U.S. Navy)

For the first time, naval ships from the Philippines, Japan, India and the United States conducted a joint exercise in the South China Sea.

The ships sailed from Busan, South Korea, to Singapore from May 2–8 as part of an ongoing international commitment to protect trade routes and ensure economic security.

The U.S. said that events like this promote a free and open Indo-Pacific.

About a third of the world’s trade flows through the South China Sea, according to Admiral John Richardson, U.S. chief of naval operations. The U.S. Navy has been consistently present in the South China Sea for more than 70 years, he said. The exercise, he told reporters afterward, was part of normal operations, “part of the way that the United States continues to show a strong advocacy for a rules-based order.”

“Professional engagements with our allies, partners and friends in the region are opportunities to build upon our existing strong relationships, as well as learn from each other,” said Commander Andrew J. Klug, commanding officer of the USS William P. Lawrence.

The South China Sea is home to numerous islands, shoals and reefs. All states may exercise their navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea and elsewhere under the international law of the sea.

“In addition to building mutual understanding and trust, it also served as a way to enhance peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” Japanese Rear Admiral Hiroshi Egawa said.

This latest mission included six ships.

“Our bond of friendship with our regional partners is as strong as our commitment to maintain peace and stability in the region,” said Captain Jerry Y. Garrido Jr. of the Philippines ship Andres Bonifacio.

This story was updated on May 16, 2019.