Aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, South China Sea (Reuters) – As the commanders of the largest U.S. warship in Asia seek to maintain operational readiness amid protracted tensions over North Korea, they find themselves keeping one eye on China, too.

On Saturday, as F-18 Super Hornet jet fighters roared from the decks of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier during routine drills deep in the South China Sea, two Chinese frigates maintained a constant line-of-sight vigil.

Officers on the Japanese-based Reagan described frequent close quarter surveillance from the ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in international waters.

Sometimes, they said, Chinese vessels steam in to check out the carrier en route to other destinations. Other times, Chinese frigates linger for days within the screen of U.S. ships and planes that protect the Reagan – Washington’s only carrier based outside America.

At times, the carrier crew, to ensure safe passage, will alert their uninvited Chinese escorts, should the Reagan sharply alter course, officers said.

“We’ve had no issues. They’ve been very professional,” said Rear Admiral Marc Dalton, commander of the Reagan’s strike group, as well as the larger battle forces of the U.S. Seventh Fleet. “We see them on a regular basis,” he said.

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