Tensions heat up in South China Sea as US sends significant force

Tensions heat up in South China Sea as US sends significant force
The US has sent two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea. Source: US Navy
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Daily US Times: Two US Navy aircraft carriers are in the South China Sea for the first time in six years. This is the latest show of military might from the US as it pushes back against China’s sweeping claim to much of the contested region.

On Monday, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force composed of the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups conduct dual carrier operations in the South China Sea.

US Navy statement said the operating under the name the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force, the American aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, “conducted several tactical exercises designed to maximize air defense capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft.”

“These efforts support enduring US commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the Navy statement said.

Aircraft from the Nimitz Carrier Strike Force and a B-52 Bomber from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana fly over the South China Sea. Source: US Navy

According to Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brophy, a spokesperson aboard the Reagan, it is the first time two US carriers have operated together in the South China Sea since 2014 and only the second time since 2001.

As the US force was putting on its display on America’s Independence Day holiday, the People Liberation Army Navy of China was wrapping up five days of drills around the Paracel Islands, known in China as the Xisha, a chain also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

China did not give details about the Paracel drills involved, but in a report published in the government controlled Global Times, the drill was described as “intensive”.

According to a post on the website of the PLA, China’s Foreign Ministry described its South China Sea drills as being “within sovereignty and reasonable”. China claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory and over the past several years, Beijing has built up military fortifications on several islands.

The littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords(front) exercises with the Republic of Singapore Navy Fmulti-role stealth frigate RSS Steadfast in the South China Sea, May 25, 2020. Source: US Navy

That buildup is included the launch of anti-ship missiles from an island during exercises last year. But Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to then-US President Barack Obama in 2015 that the islands would not be militarized.

As US-China relations have continued to deteriorate over the course of this year, Washington has steadily upped the tempo of its operations in the South China Sea, staging Freedom of Navigation operations close to Chinese-held islands, performing overflights by US Air Force heavy bombers, and conducting joint naval operations with partners such as Singapore and Japan.

But the weekend’s deployment of the two aircraft carriers, both of them support 60-plus aircraft, as well as accompanying guided-missile cruisers and destroyers, appears to be a clear statement that Washington is not about to cede any influence in the region to Beijing.

The US Navy statement said: “Nimitz and Reagan form the most effective and agile fighting force in the world, supporting US commitment to mutual defense agreements with regional allies and partners, and promoting peace and prosperity throughout the Info-Pacific.”

Meanwhile, China has labeled the US’ presence in the region as destabilizing.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “Some countries outside the region often travel thousands of miles to the South China Sea to engage in large-scale military activities, and show off their power, which is the fundamental reason that affects the stability in the South China Sea.”

A US advantage

A former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center and analyst Carl Schuster said the dual-carrier exercises show off power that, at least for moment, only the US Navy has. China has only one fully operational aircraft carrier and a second one nearing that status. However, both Chinese carriers don’t have the size and ability to carry as many aircraft as the two US Navy carriers. And those two carriers just finished operating with a third, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, in the nearby Philippine Sea.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet flies over the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on July 4, 2020. Source: US nAVY

Schuster noted that operating two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea can be a more complex operation than having three in the Philippine Sea.

As the Global Times report, China called the US carriers “nothing more than paper tigers on China’s doorsteps” and said Beijing has more than enough firepower to defend its positions in the South China Sea.

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