Daily US Times: In a rare move, two US Navy aircraft carriers have resumed dual exercises in the contested waters in the South China Sea, the second time this month the massive warships have teamed up there.
The US Pacific Fleet said in a statement the USS Ronald and USS Nimitz carrier strikes groups, comprising more than 12,000 military personnel among the two aircraft carriers and their escorting destroyers and cruisers, were operating in the South China Sea as of Friday.
More than 120 aircraft deployed between the two carriers. They were conducting tactical air defense drills “to maintain warfighting readiness and proficiency,” the statement said.
It said: “The two-carrier strike force trains to the highest levels of readiness to ensure responsiveness to any contingency through power projection.”
In early July, 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.
The presence of the Regan and Nimitz in the South China Sea earlier this month marked the first time two US aircraft carriers have operated together there since 2014 and only the second time since 2001.
On July 8, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brophy aboard the Reagan said that “each strike group continues on its respective operational tasking.”
Photos posted on the US Navy’s website placed the Reagan strike group in the Indian Ocean from 10-14 July.
China protests US Navy activities
China has long been claiming almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea as its sovereign territory. Beijing reacted harshly to the US carriers’ presence in the region in early July.
At that time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “The US action is intended to drive a wedge between countries, promote the militarization of the South China Sea, and undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Since then, tensions have increased between the two countries, with Washington this week labeling most of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea as illegal.
In a lengthy statement, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law.”
The Chinese Embassy in Washington called those the accusations made by the US “completely unjustified.”
In a statement published by the embassy said the US “distorts the facts and international law … exaggerates the situation in the region and attempts to sow discord between China and other littoral countries.”
A US guided missile destroyer sailed near the Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands a day after Pompeo’s announcement. The islands are also known as the Nansha Islands in China.
Cmdr. Reann Mommsen, a spokesperson for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, described the movement as a “freedom of navigation” operation.
In a statement to CNN, Mr Mommsen said: ”Part of the US Navy’s commitment to asserting the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage.”
His statement adds: “Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”
US Navy used similar language when the two carriers joined up in the South China Sea again on Friday.
Rear Adm. Jim Kirk, commander, Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, said in a statement: “Nimitz and Reagan Carrier Strike Groups are operating in the South China Sea, wherever international law allows, to reinforce our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, a rules based international order, and to our allies and partners in the region.”
The statement said the latest deployment of US military force was not in reaction to any of the politics of the past week.
“The presence of two carriers in the South China Sea is not in response to any specific political or world events, but is part of regular integration to exercise and develop tactical interoperability. For more than 75 years, the US Navy has been operating multiple carrier strike force operations in the region.”
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