US sends carriers to S. China Sea during Chinese drills

Matthew Tostevin, Reuters

Posted at Jul 04 2020 01:20 PM

A handout photo by the Philippines' Department of National Defense shows the newly built beach ramp at Pag-asa Island in the disputed South China Sea, June 9, 2020. Philippines' Department of National Defense/Reuters

Two US aircraft carriers were conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea on Saturday, the US Navy said, as China also carried out military drills that have been criticized by the Pentagon and neighboring states.

China and the United States have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.

The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan were carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea "to support a free and open Indo-Pacific," the navy said in a statement.

It did not say exactly where the exercises were being conducted in the South China Sea, which extends for some 1,500 kms and 90 percent of which is claimed by China despite protests of its neighbors.

"The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability," Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the exercises.

Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the Ronald Reagan, said the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China, which the Pentagon criticized this week as "counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability."

China dismissed the US criticism of its drills on Friday and suggested the United States was to blame for increasing tensions.

US carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, according to the US navy. At one point recently, the United States had 3 carriers in the region.

China announced last week it had scheduled 5 days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.

Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the planned Chinese drills, warning they could create tension in the region and impact Beijing's relationship with its neighbors.

The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year.

The US statement said the naval exercises gave commanders the flexibility and capabilities "that only the US Navy can command."