Two U.S. aircraft carriers kicked off joint exercises in the Philippine Sea on Sunday, a day after Southeast Asian leaders delivered some of their strongest remarks opposing Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds.
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Groups began the drills to bolster the United States’ “responsive, flexible, and enduring commitments” to mutual defense agreements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, the Navy said in a statement.
The dual carrier exercises also came exactly a week after the Nimitz and another carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt conducted their own joint operations in the area. It is rare to see three U.S. aircraft carriers operating at the same time in the Western Pacific and even more unusual to have separate dual carrier exercises within such a quick time frame.
Rear Adm. George Wikoff, the commander Carrier Strike Group 5, said in a statement that the drills were intended to strengthen the Navy’s ability to conduct “all-domain warfighting operations.”
“The U.S. Navy remains mission ready and globally deployed. Dual carrier operations demonstrate our commitment to regional allies, our ability to rapidly mass combat power in the Indo-Pacific, and our readiness to confront all those who challenge international norms that support regional stability,” Wikoff said.
The statement’s focus on regional allies will add to growing pressure on China, which 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.
On Saturday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said in a statement issued by Vietnam on behalf of the 10-nation bloc that a 1982 U.N. oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the disputed waterway.
“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the ASEAN statement said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans and demarcates exclusive economic zones where coastal states have special rights to fishing and energy resources.
Collin Koh, a research fellow and maritime security expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the U.S. decision was likely intended to publicly “counter the Chinese narrative” that its presence in the region has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic while also reassuring nervous allies and partners.
But he also said that while there’s no explicit evidence that could show a direct linkage between this dual-carrier show of force and the recent ASEAN summit, “we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility,” since military training activities have in the past been planned beforehand and timed with the event.
The South China Sea’s eastern entry points and surrounding waters — including near Taiwan — have seen a flurry of military activity recently. This month alone, the Chinese Air Force has sent warplanes near Taiwan at least nine times, including a flight of two heavy bombers on Sunday. Other than bombers, the flights this month also involved J-10, J-11, and Su-30 fighter jets, as well as Y-8 surveillance planes.
China has been working to make these kinds of flights routine, both bolstering its presence in the area and using them to “effectively lockdown the area from foreign forces,” military expert Song Zhongping told China’s state-run Global Times on Sunday.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration also announced Sunday that the military would be conducting exercises near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea from Wednesday through July 5.
The U.S. side has also been busy in the region, with spy planes conducting multiple surveillance missions over the past several days, according to a Chinese think tank.
The South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, which is based at Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research in Beijing, said it had chronicled the missions using flight-tracking websites and posted images alleging the flights on Twitter.
Drew Thompson, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, wrote on Twitter in response that among the planes, a pair of U.S. Navy P-8 Orions “had taken up station over an underwater target of interest, most likely a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy submarine making its way through the Bashi Channel.”
With the Reagan operating nearby, keeping a close eye on the area and creating a so-called picket line is “a standard measure to protect the carrier from Hainan-based submarines,” he wrote, referring to Hainan Island, home to a major Chinese submarine base.
Prior to last week’s joint drills, the Reagan and the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Groups conducted combined operations in the Philippine Sea in November 2018, according to the Navy, while in September 2014 the USS George Washington and USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Groups operated in the South and East China seas.
While the carrier operations are among some of the most visible moves in the region by the U.S. military, the Navy has stoked the anger of Beijing by regularly holding drills and conducting so-called freedom of navigation operations close to some of the islands China occupies in the South China Sea, 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.
China’s Defense Ministry has denied it is looking to cement control of the South China Sea, accusing Washington last week of “hyping up the so-called China threat in total disregard of facts, trying to sow discord among the regional countries and stigmatize China’s anti-epidemic efforts” amid the global coronavirus outbreak.