Under the baking heat of a vast ocean horizon, the USS Ronald Reagan is going about its business. Fighter jets burst from the deck of the enormous aircraft carrier with ease.
As the crew of the vessel set about conducting their daily routine, they were joined by 10 Cambodian diplomats, including senior officials from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior – the first time Cambodian officials have stepped aboard the giant ship.
“I am Captain “Buzz” Donnelly, the commanding officer of the USS Ronald Reagan and we are operating right now in the South China Sea, in between the Spratly and Paracel Islands in international waters,” says the ship’s captain, Michael Donnelly.
“We are conducting normal operations for a carrier strike group – freedom of navigation, operating in the vicinity of worldwide commerce. Lots of ships have been going through this area, from Australia to Malacca. It is an area that we’re frequently operating in and [conducting] exercises with our friends, allies, and neighbors in this area, to demonstrate our commitment to the freedom of the sea and the freedom of commerce.”
The official visit on Thursday came while the USS Ronald Reagan was conducting surveillance of the contested South China Sea. During the rare visit, the Cambodian officials took the opportunity to study the operations of the US carrier and fighter jets in action.
They also had a hands-on experience with command during take-off and landing and giving orders to jets to carry out missions.
Captain Donnelly said it had been a pleasure to welcome the Cambodian officials aboard.
“This opportunity today for the Cambodian military and government officials to come out and see exactly what it is for an aircraft carrier to operate on the high seas, for us to have that exchange and face-to-face opportunity to discuss is nothing but beneficial to our relationship,” he said.
Interior Ministry secretary of state Prum Sokha said the visit was important “in order to maintain peace in the region and in the world”.
“What’s important is that joint cooperation requires us to understand one another. So the visit is a way to do so. Not only do we explore the high technology, but also the spectrum of the operation from a joint goal,” he said.
The USS Ronald Reagan was put into commission in 2001. At more than 1,000 feet long (about 330 meters) and 76 meters wide, it is powered by a nuclear reactor. In January 2014 the ship replaced the USS George Washington to join to 7th Fleet based out of Yokosuka, Japan.
Captain Donnelly said the ship carries a crew of more than 5,000, including engineers, doctors, pilots and naval officers. It carries about 70 fighter jets, including F-18s, as well as helicopters and radar planes.
He added that one of the main roles of the USS Ronald Reagan was to maintain peace in the contested South China Sea.
“It is not so much a concern directly to us because we’re always operating here. We have a long history of operations in the South China Sea and throughout the Pacific Asia/India area of operations” he said. “This is a very frequent area whether we’re going through it, over to the Indian Ocean and to CentCom area of operations in the Arabian Gulf, or whether we’re just staying here to operate in the West Pacific or in the South China Sea itself. So, there is nothing unique about our operation here today. We just operate where we choose”.
A ruling in a contentious court case over the South China Sea is due on Tuesday, with the decision likely to favor the Philippines over China.
Several Asian states stand at odds with China in the dispute, while China continues to develop numerous areas in the Sea, including creating artificial islands.
On Thursday, Sokha of the Interior Ministry said as Cambodia was an Asean member state it would not interfere in any bilateral disputes between other Asean nations and China, a key ally of Phnom Penh.
“The main operation of each nation is to maintain peace and stability in the region. As the Cambodian government and Prime Minister Hun Sen have stated concerning the dispute, Cambodia’s position is for bilateral and peaceful resolution.”