In a "show of force," the U.S. Navy dispatched an aircraft carrier and five escort ships to the South China Sea amid rising tensions between the U.S., China and other Southeast Asian nations claiming territory in the disputed region, multiple defense officials confirmed to Fox News Friday.
The dispatch sends a signal to China that the U.S. Navy will continue to conduct freedom of navigation patrols even as China continues to "militarize" islands, those officials say.
The Navy Times reported Thursday the U.S. sent the USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship. The deployment comes after Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned China over the militarization of its claimed artificial islands.
The Stennis was joined by the Japan-based cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay and destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockdale, according to the Navy Times. The command ship USS Blue Ridge, is also in the area and is heading for the Philippines. Officials said the Antietam was conducting a separate patrol from the Stennis.
Tensions have increased over the last month after it was learned that China had placed surface-to-air-missiles on one of the Paracel Islands. Since the incident, U.S. Pacific Command Chief Adm. Harry Harris has sea that China is militarizing the region.
“In my opinion China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea,” Harris testified on Feb. 24. “You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to believe otherwise.”
The U.S. has completed patrols within the 12-mile limit of China’s artificial islands. Last October, the destroyer Lassen went through the region and on Jan. 30, the destroyer Curtis Wilbur sailed near Trinton Island, part of the Paracel Islands.
Carter took a harsh tone Tuesday speaking at a conference in San Francisco. He said if China doesn’t heed the warning to stop militarizing the region, the U.S. was prepared to increase military deployments to the Asia-Pacific region and would spend nearly $425 million to pay for more joint military exercise with countries that feel threatened by Beijing.
“China must not pursue militarization in the South China Sea,” China said in a speech in San Francisco. “Specific actions will have specific consequences.”
Meanwhile, a Philippine official said he spotted five Chinese coast guard and navy ships at the Jackson Atoll last week that have not been previously stationed there before. However, by Wednesday the ships were gone.
China also announced Friday it will boost defense spending 7 to 8 percent in 2016, its smallest increase in six years. However, it will still have the world’s largest standing military in the world.
The U.S. and other Southeast Asian governments with rival claims, have expressed alarm over China's island construction, saying it raises tensions, threatens regional stability and could violate freedom of navigation and overflight.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have conflicting territorial claims in the Spratlys.
Fox News' Lucas Tomlinson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.