For the first time in several years, the United States has deployed two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said Monday – right after China flexed its own naval muscle with a military exercise in the disputed Paracel Islands.
The military maneuvers point to rising tensions in the region, as the U.S. pushes back against an increasingly assertive China, which has been ratcheting up pressure on other claimant nations. A U.S. analyst warned that with the current pattern of activity, there was a danger of escalation.
“This is heightened because both the United States and China as well as most other claimants tend to assess the escalation potential to be quite low – hence the very real possibility of provocative behavior by one or more states triggering an unintended escalatory spiral,” said Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist for the U.S.-based RAND Corporation and a professor at Marine Corps University.
The American deployment of the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, and their accompanying strike groups, began with drills in the Philippine Sea on June 28. The ships then moved west into the South China Sea on July 4, America’s Independence Day.
“Committed to our allies and a free and open Indo-Pacific, [the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier] brings a flexibility and combat lethality unmatched anywhere in the world,” Capt. Pat Hannifin, the ship’s commanding officer, said in a statement released by the U.S. Navy. “These operations with [the] Nimitz demonstrate that we are but one component of a much larger and equally committed naval force.”
Rear Adm. James Kirk, commander of Carrier Strike Group Eleven, whose flagship is the Nimitz, told Reuters that the aircraft carrier was within sight of a Chinese naval exercise that took place in the Paracel Islands from July 1-5. That drill had drawn criticism from Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which issued statements condemning it. The United States issued its own on July 2.
The Paracels are in the north of the South China Sea and claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, although China occupies all of its features.
The U.S. Navy said in its press release that it was the first so-called dual carrier exercise in the South China Sea since 2014. However, Scobell noted that two U.S. aircraft carriers had also operated in the area in 2016 – a month before a landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case brought by the Philippines that undermined the legal basis for China’s expansive territorial claims in South China Sea.
He said the timing of the current exercise was critical.
“These signals are particularly important ones to disabuse friends and foes that even at this challenging time for the United States – in the midst of a pandemic, economic crisis, and political polarization at home – the U.S. Navy stands ready and fully capable of operating in the Western Pacific,” Scobell said.
China, which was chided by its neighbors for its military drills in the Paracels last week, claimed that the U.S. military exercise was intended to cause division among nations in the region.
“It is completely out of ulterior motives that the US flexes its muscles by purposely sending powerful military force to the relevant waters for large-scale exercises,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a news conference in Beijing on Monday. “The U.S. intends to drive a wedge between regional countries, promote militarization of the South China Sea and undermine peace and stability in the region.”
Despite the show of U.S. naval power, China at the weekend sent a coastguard ship, numbered 5402, to Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands, close to an area where Vietnam plans to explore for oil, satellite imagery and ship-tracking software shows.
Vanguard Bank was the site of a prolonged standoff between China and Vietnam last year, and China’s decision to send a ship there could presage another confrontation at sea.
The coastguard ship deployment comes just a week after a Chinese survey ship was spotted within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone – which the U.S. responded to by sending the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords to the area on July 1. The Navy released a photo showing the Giffords patrolling near the Chinese survey ship and a Vietnamese coastguard vessel.