WASHINGTON – Two US aircraft carriers sailed to the South China Sea on Saturday for what Navy officials described as a freedom of navigation operation, while the Chinese military conducts exercises nearby.
The carriers, Ronald Reagan and Nimitz, were deployed “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement from the Navy Seventh Fleet. He said the ships, accompanied by warships and planes, were conducting exercises to improve air defense and long-range missile attacks in “a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
Beijing has claimed much of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which a third of the world’s shipping flows, over objections from other regional powers and an international tribunal that has rejected China’s claims.
The deployment of a US aircraft carrier and its strike force is often used as a signal to deter adversaries. Deploying two at once is recognized as a significant show of strength; In 2016, then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter toured two aircraft carriers sailing the South China Sea as a reminder to Beijing of the United States’ commitment to allies in the region.
A Navy official Saturday described the mission as a routine operation, downplaying the specter of a deliberate show of force to the Chinese military while conducting its own military exercises at sea. The official, who was not authorized to describe the details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the carriers’ mission had been previously planned to ensure that shipping and navigation routes remained open in international waters.
Lt. James Adams, a spokesman for the United States Pacific Fleet, said the operation “does not respond to any political or global event.”
But earlier this week, the Pentagon said it was monitoring China’s military exercises in disputed waters and territories near the Paracel Islands.
“Conducting military exercises on the disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to efforts to ease tensions and maintain stability,” the Pentagon said in a July 2 statement.
He also said that the Chinese exercises, due to end Sunday, violated a 2002 agreement on international conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing’s actions, according to the statement, “will further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.”
The Ronald Reagan is generally stationed in Japan; The Nimitz arrived on the Asian coast on June 17 and has also been conducting joint exercises with another aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt returned to the sea on June 4. She had spent weeks docked in Guam, with her crew quarantined, to deal with an outbreak of coronavirus on board earlier this year.