The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group has kicked off bilateral exercises with the Maritime Self-Defense Force, including one of the largest vessels in Japan’s fleet, in the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said Tuesday.

The navy, which said the Vinson was on a “regularly scheduled deployment in the Western Pacific,” said the Vinson and the USS Wayne E. Meyer guided-missile destroyer were conducting combined operations with the MSDF’s Ise helicopter destroyer as part of drills aimed at bolstering maritime interoperability between the longstanding allies.

“Strong maritime partnerships maintain security, stability and prosperity, which the Indo-Pacific region has enjoyed for more than 70 years,” Rear Adm. John Fuller, the strike group commander, said in a statement. “Collaborating with a close maritime partner promotes regional cooperation.”

The navy said that as part of the exercise, four MSDF liaison officers had embarked on the Vinson to support combined operations. The operations will include formation steaming as well as anti-submarine and air-defense training, and the Ise will also conduct a replenishment-at-sea with the Vinson.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.

Beijing has stoked concern in the region after building up a series of man-made outposts in the Spratly Island chain, including what experts say are now fully functioning air and naval bases.

The U.S. has criticized the Chinese militarization of its South China Sea islands, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted numerous freedom of navigation patrols in the area in recent years.

Beijing has disputed this claim, saying the militarization of the outposts has been for self-defense purposes.

Experts say China hopes to secure control of the strategic waterway, which it envisions as a bastion for its nuclear-armed submarines.

The Ise, a nearly 200-meter (646-foot) helicopter destroyer, displaces 18,000 tons and sails with three helicopters. The ship’s primary missions include anti-submarine warfare, mine countermeasure, logistics, and search and rescue.

The Vinson strike group, meanwhile, also includes Carrier Air Wing 2 and a complement of more than 70 aircraft, Destroyer Squadron 1 and the guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy.

The Murphy conducted a passing exercise with the French frigate FNS Vendemiaire while operating in the Western Pacific and South China Sea in January and February, the U.S. Navy said. Sailors practiced communication and ship-handling techniques.

The Vinson strike group completed a historic port visit to Vietnam on March 9, which marked the first time a U.S. aircraft carrier had visited in more than 40 years.

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