The U.S. Navy has suspended search operations for a missing sailor believed to have fallen overboard Tuesday from a ship in the South China Sea.
The U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement Friday that after searching for the sailor, Lt. Steven Hopkins, assigned to the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem, the operation had been halted.
Vessels from the Maritime Self-Defense Force had also participated in the search, “demonstrating the common bond shared by all mariners to render assistance at sea,” the statement said.
The search for Hopkins, who went missing during a joint U.S.-Japanese drill, also saw the Chinese navy join in the search in a rare cooperative gesture in the disputed waters.
Two Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates joined the U.S. vessels and the MSDF destroyer Sazanami and helicopters from the Izumo, its largest warship, in the search operations.
The three navies spent a total of 79 hours in the “comprehensive” search, which covered roughly 25,900 sq. km (10,000 sq. miles), the 7th Fleet said in the statement.
At the apparent time the sailor went missing, the Stethem was conducting operations about 140 miles (225 km) west of Subic Bay in the Philippines, the statement added.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Charles Williams, the commander of Task Force 70, offered his prayers for the sailor and thanked those who aided in the search.
“I appreciate greatly the dedication and professionalism shown by all who participated in the search efforts,” Williams said.
An investigation is currently underway.
Beijing has built a string of militarized outposts on its man-made islets in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which trillions of dollars in trade pass each year.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Early last month, the Pentagon sent the Stethem near to disputed Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea.
The patrol, the second known “freedom of navigation” operation under U.S. President Donald Trump, was conducted within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the Chinese-held islet.
The patrols represent “a challenge to excessive maritime claims,” according to the U.S. Defense Department.
China says they violate domestic and international law and infringe upon its sovereignty.
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