For the first time since 2017, the U.S. Navy has positioned three of its aircraft carriers on the doorstep of the disputed South China Sea, as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to soar.
Analysts said the dispatch to the Western Pacific of the three vessels was likely intended to send a message to China that, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the United States military would continue to maintain a strong presence in the region.
On Sunday, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet said the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz carrier strike groups had begun dual carrier flight operations in the Philippine Sea.
The two strike groups were scheduled to conduct air defense drills, sea surveillance, replenishments at sea, defensive air combat training, long-range strike drills, coordinated maneuvers and other exercises, according to a statement.
“This is a great opportunity for us to train together in a complex scenario,” said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of Carrier Strike Group 9. “By working together in this environment, we’re improving our tactical skills and readiness in the face of an increasingly pressurized region and COVID-19.”
Separately, the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group was also conducting operations in the Phiippine Sea, according to photos released by the Pacific Fleet.
While it was not clear where in the Philippine Sea the U.S. carriers were operating as of Sunday — or where they would head to next — the Luzon Strait between Taiwan and the Philippines is the entryway into the flash point South China Sea.
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.
The U.S. Navy has angered Beijing by regularly conducting training and so-called freedom of navigation operations close to some of the islands China occupies in the waterway, including its man-made islets, asserting that freedom of access is crucial to international waterways.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the waterway, including the construction of the man-made islands, 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.
Chinese state-run media lashed out last week as news emerged that the three carriers were simultaneously operating in the Pacific.
In a report, the hawkish Global Times said that the deployment could put Chinese troops at risk.
“By massing these aircraft carriers, the U.S. is attempting to demonstrate to the whole region and even the world that it remains the most powerful naval force, as they could enter the South China Sea and threaten Chinese troops on the Xisha and Nansha islands as well as vessels passing through nearby waters, so the U.S. could carry out its hegemonic politics,” the report quoted Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie as saying.
The Xisha and Nansha Islands are the Chinese names for the Paracel and Spratly chains in the South China Sea.
But the report also said that China could counter the U.S. by holding its own naval drills in the waters at the same time, Li said.
It also highlighted the weapons at Beijing’s disposal, notably mentioning its “wide range of weapons designed to sink aircraft carriers,” including the DF-21D “carrier killer” and DF-26 “Guam killer” ballistic missiles.
The U.S. military has in recent months grappled with the coronavirus as it battled to maintain its formidable presence in the Western Pacific, while both reassuring allies and preventing China from capitalizing on any perceived opening.
The Navy has rebounded after cases of COVID-19 were detected on some of its ships, including infections aboard all three carriers currently in the Philippine Sea, with many of the hard-hit vessels returning to action.
“Our operations demonstrate the resilience and readiness of our naval force and are a powerful message of our commitment to regional security and stability as we protect the critically important rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea for the benefit all nations,” said Rear Adm. James Kirk, commander of Carrier Strike Group 11.
U.S. carriers have conducted dual carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific, including in the South and East China seas and Philippine Sea for several years, according to the navy. These operations typically occur when strike groups deployed to the 7th Fleet area of operations from the U.S. West Coast link up with the forward-deployed carrier strike group from Yokosuka.
This month’s deployment to the Pacific is the largest since 2017, when the U.S. sent three carriers to the region amid tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
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