The USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Regan are conducting flight drills in the disputed waters. The exercises began on America’s Independence Day holiday on July 4 and come amid sky-high tensions between the US and China over the coronavirus pandemic and rows over trade.
They have seen us and we have seen them
Nimitz commander Rear Admiral James Kirk said contacts with Chinese ships had so far been without incident.
He said: “They have seen us and we have seen them.
“We have the expectation that we will always have interactions that are professional and safe.
“We are operating in some pretty congested waters, lots of maritime traffic of all sorts.”
A US Navy helicopter lands on the USS Nimitz
The US Navy has brought carriers together for shows of strength in the region in the past but the lates drills come after Washington accused Beijing of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
China’s foreign ministry said the US had deliberately sent its ships to the South China Sea to flex its muscles and accused it of trying to drive a wedge between countries in the region.
The Pentagon, when it announced the dual carrier exercise, said it wanted to “stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.
A spokesman described the 100,000-ton ships and the 90 or so aircraft they each carry as a “symbol of resolve”.
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USS Nimitz is carrying out flight drills in the South China Sea
USS Ronald Reagan has joined the USS Nimitz
About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups.
China’s claims nine tenths of in the resource-rich South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of trade passes a year.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have competing claims.
China has built island bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful although military drills it carried out least week appeared to send out a different message to Beijing’s regional rivals.
The carriers have steamed into the South China Sea amid sky-high tensions
Defence analysts said the large-scale drills were designed to highlight China’s ability to storm and seize islands with warships and paramilitary coast guard vessels.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow and naval expert at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said: “It looks like what they’re going to do is practice some island seizure or island security exercises, which could be a way of demonstrating to other Southeast Asian nations that China can come in and kick them off their islands.”
Mr Clark, who reviewed real-time satellite imagery of China’s main military base at Woody Island, said the exercises were not about simulating an attack on another military force but using the military to suppress potential civilian unrest.
He told Radio Free Asia: “The way it appears they’re setting up their forces for the exercise, it seems like it’s more of a civilian action than it is a military force-on-force engagement.”
Woody Island is China’s largest occupied feature and main administrative centre in the Paracels, an archipelago of rocks and reefs claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and China.
Satellite imagery showed a Type 071 landing helicopter dock in Woody Island’s harbour alongside three smaller ships.
The Type 071 is meant for amphibious warfare operations and the three smaller vesels were thought to be minesweepers.
Armed Chinese Coast Guard vessels also took part in the drills, according to vessel tracking data and satellite imagery.
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Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee: “China wants the South China Sea to be a Chinese lake.
“Xi Jinping has put this issue, among a few others, at the heart of his China Dream.
“It underpins his claim to legitimacy. So certainly we are going to continue to see China push and push and push the envelope here because Xi has linked his political future to it.”