Two US aircraft carriers were yesterday conducting exercises in the disputed South China Sea, the US Navy said as China also carried out military drills that have been criticized by the US Department of Defense and neighboring states.
China and the US have accused each other of stoking tension in the waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from COVID-19 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 about 1,500km and 90 percent of which is claimed by China, despite the protests of its neighbors.
Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, through which about US$3 trillion of trade passes each year.
“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” US Rear Admiral George 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 department 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 said the US 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 US had three carriers in the region.
China last week announced that it had scheduled five days of drills starting on Wednesday near the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), which are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China.
Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the Chinese drills, saying that they could create tension in the region and affect Beijing’s relations with its neighbors.
The US has accused China of trying to intimidate neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
The US statement said the naval exercises gave commanders the flexibility and capabilities “that only the US Navy can command.”
Separately yesterday, Taiwan’s Air Force Command Headquarters reported that a Chinese fighter briefly entered the nation’s airspace, before leaving after radio warnings were issued.
There is no cause for alarm, the air force said, adding that it is closely monitoring the airspace and waters around Taiwan.
Additional reporting by CNA
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