The US Navy has sent two aircraft carrier groups into the South China Sea for the first time since 2014 as China conducts exercises the contested waters.
The USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan were conducting dual carrier operations and exercises in the South China Sea to support a free and open Indo-Pacific, the US Navy said on Saturday.
China’s People’s Liberation Army is conducting a five-day drill around the Paracel Islands, a disputed archipelago. Vietnam and the Philippines have protested against the exercise, which Washington has criticised as counterproductive to easing regional tension.
Beijing’s actions would “further destabilise the situation in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon said on Thursday, adding that the exercises violated Chinese commitments under an agreement with fellow claimants.
The simultaneous drills by Chinese and US armed forces in the strategic waters are the most high profile yet of a series of operations held in close quarters, as the two powers vie for dominance in the Asia-Pacific theatre.
The US repeatedly sent warships into the South China Sea in April following Chinese harassment of fishing and oil prospecting vessels from Vietnam and Malaysia.
The carriers involved in the current South China Sea exercises have been operating together in the Philippine Sea since June 28. Chinese and US military aircraft and ships have frequently followed each other in the South China Sea, the Bashi Channel which connects it to the Pacific, and the Philippine Sea.
On June 24, a Chinese warplane suddenly approached a US military tanker and naval surveillance aircraft south-east of Taiwan, according to Taiwanese military sources and experts. Military analysts said the surveillance aircraft was refuelling between flights to observe a Chinese submarine near Pratas, a South China Sea atoll held by Taiwan.
“This is a very risky manoeuvre,” said Captain Chang Ching, a research fellow at the Strategic Studies Society ROC and former commander in Taiwan’s navy. “They were sending the US a message: We know where you are!”
Since the start of the Chinese exercise in the Paracels on Wednesday, US surveillance ships and aircraft have been observing, according to data from ship and aircraft tracking websites shared by the South China Sea Probing Initiative, an outfit set up by Peking University.
The US and China have a number of agreements aimed at avoiding incidents in the air and at sea. Under an agreement for the notification of major military activities, the US was obliged to keep out of the area of the Paracels exercise which China had announced in advance, Capt Chang said.
Lt Joe Keiley, spokesman of the Seventh Fleet said the operation supported “enduring US commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”
“This opportunity for two carrier strike groups to train and operate together in the region provides combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility and capabilities that only the US Navy can command.”
Capt Chang said the US was aiming to demonstrate its superior naval capabilities to China. “The Chinese public has been enthusing how their nation has entered a ‘dual carrier’ era after their second carrier started service last year,” he said. “Now, the US Navy is aiming to shake that confidence by showing them that only it can stage such operations.”