WASHINGTON, U.S. – As part of Washington’s pressure campaign against China’s militarization of the man-made islands it has constructed in the disputed South China Sea – the U.S. and U.K. carried out joint military naval drills in the strategic waterways.

The two navies announced in a statement on Wednesday that they had conducted their first joint naval drills in the disputed South China Sea since China constructed the island bases there.

In a press statement, the U.S. Navy said, “A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer the USS McCampbell, which is based in Japan, and a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Argyll, which is on a tour of Asia, conducted communication drills and other exercises from Friday to Wednesday to address common security priorities.”

In the statement, a U.S. Navy spokesman said, “There’s no record in recent history of operations together, specifically in the South China Sea.”

The spokesman noted that no such joint drills have been conducted there since at least 2010.

The joint drills were also the second time in 12 months that Britain directly challenged China’s growing control of the strategic waterway.

In August 2018, the 22,000 ton British warship HMS Albion sailed close to the Paracel Island chain that is claimed by China in the South China Sea.

The drill last year incited an angry response from Beijing, which accused London of engaging in “provocation.”

Britain’s participation in the joint drills came at a time when the U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has increased the frequency of the international freedom of navigation drills in the resource-rich waterways.

The joint drills also comes after the U.S. said that it would like to see more international participation in its pressure campaign against the militarization of the South China Sea.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said that a U.S. warship sailed through the South China Sea to challenge China’s “excessive maritime challenge.”

A statement by U.S. Pacific Fleet spokeswoman Rachel McMarr said that the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell patrolled near the Parcel Islands challenging China’s claim to the region.

It noted that the USS McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands of Tree, Lincoln and Woods in a ‘freedom of navigation operation.’

At the time, McMarr clarified that the operation was not about any one country or to make a political statement.

She added that the visit was intended to “preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”

However, the U.S. action triggered a furious response by China, which scrambled warships and aircraft to intercept USS McCampbell.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at the time that the conduct of the U.S. ship had violated China’s and international law.

Kang had stated, “We urge the United States to immediately cease this kind of provocation,” adding that China had sent military ships and aircraft to identify and warn off the ship.

He added that resolving issues would benefit the two countries and the world and added, “Both sides have the responsibility to create the necessary positive atmosphere for this.”

China faces bold international challenge

China has been locked in a dispute with its neighbours, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan – that have competing claims in the strategic waterways for several years now.

Beijing has managed to maintain its dominance over the South China Sea, constructing artificial islands and deploying its weapons and defences in the waterways – in recent years, its aggressive claims have been challenged by the U.S.

The world’s two top economies have engaged in a war of words over the repeated and contentious Freedom of Navigation exercises conducted by the U.S. in the South China Sea.

China has repeatedly rebuked the U.S. over its Freedom of Navigation exercises in the resource-rich waterways, through which about $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes by each year.

For years, China has managed to ward off threats from the other, less powerful neighbours that also claim parts of the South China Sea – through its aggressive tactics and growing financial clout in the Asia Pacific region.

Yet, the country has refrained from responding back harshly in the face of repeated challenges by the U.S., Australia and the U.K.

Instead, China has insisted that it has sovereignty over the mineral-rich waterways and has pursued its brutish claims by discreetly constructing artificial islands throughout the waterway.

The country has constructed military bases on these artificial landmasses in the vital waterways, reinforced them and armed them with military equipment.

In May 2018, outrage against China’s militarization of the artificial islands in the South China Sea grew louder after the country landed its H-6K strategic bomber on an outpost in the Paracels, Woody Island for the first time.

Yet, despite the criticism, China has continued reinforcing and arming its bases in the Paracel Islands and farther south in the Spratly Islands – by deploying missiles and radar equipment.