China has announced it will hold military exercises near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday and Wednesday.
In a brief posting to its website Monday, the country’s Maritime Safety Administration said in two notices that the exercises will be held in a location that corresponds with the Paracel chain of the strategic waterway.
Both notices warned that entrance is “prohibited” but gave no other details.
It was unclear Tuesday if the military exercises had kicked off, but they would come as the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, which is homeported in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, was in the South China Sea for regular patrols. Photos from the U.S. Defense Department’s media division showed that the carrier was in the waterway Monday.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the Chinese, U.S., Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracels and further south in the Spratly chain — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry.
The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations in the area.
Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.
In a defense white paper released for the first time in years last month, China highlighted a new emphasis on “combat readiness and military training in real combat conditions” and China’s new warfighting capabilities in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.
Beijing, the white paper said, “has organized naval parades in the South China Sea and “conducted a series of live force-on-force exercises” while its air force “has conducted combat patrols in the South China Sea and security patrols in the East China Sea, and operated in the West Pacific.
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