June 11 (UPI) -- A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer joined an Australian Navy frigate for exercises this week in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy announced on Friday.
The USS Curtis Wilbur and the HMAS Ballarat spent a week of "cooperative operations with maneuvering drills and a replenishment at-sea with USNS Big Horn," a U.S. Navy statement said, in the contested area bordered by China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The two ships conducted cross-deck helicopter operations, live-fire gunnery exercises and joint maritime operations.
The sea is the passageway for the majority of China's energy imports, and much of its total trade. Disputes in the area involve sovereignty of the islands, reefs, banks and other features of the South China Sea, with China's claims on the area leading to what observers have noticed is an increased military presence there.
"This exercise builds on the strong and enduring mateships that exist between the RAN [Royal Australian Navy] and U. S. Navy," commented Cmdr. Anthony Pisani, HMAS Ballarat commander, at the conclusion of the six-day exercise.
"It also shows that together we are committed to a secure and stable maritime environment, and promotes the importance of Navy-to-Navy relationships across the region," Pisani said.
The USS Curtis Wilbur is assigned to the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet and conducts operations throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
The HMAS Ballarat arrived in the South China Sea after completing training with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship Murasame during the first week of June.
The two ships met near the coast of Japan for one day, conducting "various maritime maneuvers," the Australian Defense Department said.