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Two U.S. aircraft carriers entered the flashpoint South China Sea for joint operations on Saturday, part of a concerted effort by Washington to reassure allies and partners in the region, and counter Beijing’s moves in the disputed waterway.

The “dual carrier operations” involving the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Nimitz, were confirmed by a spokesman for the Reagan. They come as China conducts its own large-scale military exercises near contested islands that it controls in the South China Sea’s Paracel chain. The Chinese exercises, which began Wednesday, were due to wrap up Sunday. It was not clear where the U.S. operations would take place.

A U.S. Navy spokesman said the carrier operations were being conducted to “support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” but were also likely intended to send a message to both Beijing — which Washington has labeled a “strategic competitor” — and regional partners.

“High-end integrated exercises build unmatched flexibility, endurance, maneuverability, and firepower in an all-domain warfighting environment,” Lt. Cmdr. Sean Brophy, a spokesman for the Reagan Carrier Strike Group, told The Japan Times. “These efforts support enduring U.S. commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Brophy said the chance for two carrier strike groups to train and operate together in the region “provides combatant commanders with significant operational flexibility and capabilities that only the U.S. Navy can command.”

The Japan Times reported that the two carriers had conducted joint exercises in the adjacent Philippine Sea last Sunday and that the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier was also in the area. Analysts have said having three carriers in the Western Pacific is unusual.

According to the Navy, the last time two carriers were in the South China Sea together was September 2014, when the USS George Washington and USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Groups operated there and in the East China Sea.

The U.S. military has in recent months grappled with the coronavirus pandemic as it battles 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, with many of the hard-hit vessels returning to action.

“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Rear Adm. George Wikoff was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the exercises. The drills also included four other warships and “round-the-clock flights testing the striking ability of carrier-based aircraft,” he added.

The growing focus by the U.S. on reassuring regional allies will add to rising pressure on China, which claims much of the South China Sea, though the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in the Philippine Sea on Tuesday night. | U.S. NAVY
An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier in the Philippine Sea on Tuesday night. | U.S. NAVY

The U.S. military has angered Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting “freedom of navigation operations” close to and over some of the islands China occupies in the South China Sea, including its man-made islets.

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its assertiveness 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.

Although Wikoff said the exercises were not a response to the Chinese drills, the Pentagon delivered a blistering criticism of them just days earlier.

In a statement released Thursday, the Defense Department called the Chinese military exercises “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”

PRC is the acronym for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the exercises in recent days — moves lauded Friday by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“America agrees with  our Southeast Asian friends:  The PRC’s military exercise in disputed waters of the South China Sea is highly provocative. We oppose Beijing’s unlawful claims. Period,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

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