June 24 (UPI) -- The USS Gabrielle Giffords joined two ships of the Japan Self-Defense Force for bilateral exercises in the South China Sea, the Navy reported on Wednesday.
The Kashima class-training vessel JS Kashima and the Shimayuki-class training vessel JS Shimayuki of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force joined the U.S. Navy's Independence-class littoral combat ship on Tuesday, the Navy said in a statement.
The purpose of the exercise, the Navy said, was to "practice and enhance bilateral interoperability between the two navies and to emphasize the importance of communications and coordination."
The two Japanese vessels are involved in Training Cruise 2020, an exercise designed to give trainee officers experience and professional skills.
The South China Sea is claimed by China, but other countries, including the United States, regard it as international waters. Several countries surrounding the sea are disputing the sovereignty of its islands and reefs and, since 2013, China has militarized 27 of the land formations.
"The opportunity to operate with our friends and allies at sea is incredibly important for our combined readiness and partnership," said Rear Adm. Fred Kacher.
"Executing complex maritime skills with our Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force allies allows both of our teams to build on our interoperability and readiness as we maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific," Kacher said.
The USS Gabrielle Giffords is attached to the Navy's Destroyer Squadron 7 and is on a rotational deployment to the areas of operations of the U.S 7th Fleet.
In April, the ship sailed with the JMSDF's Akizuki-class destroyer JS Teruzuki in the Andaman Sea, near Myanmar.