The U.S. Navy is flexing its military might as relations between the U.S. and China continue to deteriorate.
Throughout the Independence Day weekend, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers conducted simulated military exercises in the South China Sea. The show of force came after Chinese action in the region became increasingly aggressive over the past several weeks. Two of the Navy’s world-class aircraft carriers, the USS Ronald Regan and USS Nimitz, launched hundreds of jets, helicopters, and other aircraft in one of the largest displays of U.S. military might in recent memory. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the exercises were designed to emulate sustained attacks on enemy bases.
Operations of the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea
The Navy frequently conducts operations in the South China Sea in order to check Beijing’s control of the region. However, deployments of this scale aren’t common. Therefore, many believe the large-scale exercise represents an escalation of tensions between the two superpowers. Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff, commander of the USS Ronald Reagan strike group, said the drills will “show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability.”
The joint operations marked the first time the U.S. held training exercises with two aircraft carriers in the region since 2014. “Working together with another carrier strike group provides advanced opportunities to conduct high-end training that increases our warfighting readiness,” said Rear Admiral James A. Kirk, who commands the USS Nimitz strike group.
China’s Military Activities
China also conducted its own large-scale military exercises around the nearby Paracel Islands on Sunday. The Paracel Islands are a key point of contention in the South China Sea. China, Vietnam, and Taiwan all lay claim to the islands, but China has a firm grip on the region. Chinese forces have installed missile bases, radar facilities, and an airfield on the disputed islands.
U.S. officials believe China could be trying to take advantage of coronavirus chaos to ratchet up its activities in the South China Sea and other disputed regions. Over the past several weeks, there have been several reports of Chinese military aggression. Many see the U.S. military display as a direct response to the recent incidents.
Since the pandemic began, China has increased fighter jet flights near Taiwan, a key U.S. regional ally, and instituted a major crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. Chinese forces also engaged in an altercation with Indian troops near a disputed border region in Tibet, resulting in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese troops.
Beijing hasn’t released an official statement on the U.S. military exercises just yet. However, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, criticized American operations in the region on Friday: “The fundamental cause of instability in the South China Sea is the large-scale military activities and flexing of muscles by some nonregional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away.”
China insists that it has sovereignty over practically all of the South China Sea, including its islands and resources. However, those claims are in direct conflict with other countries who also lay claim to the region. These include Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled that China’s territorial claims have no legal basis. However, Beijing rejected the ruling and it continues to operate aggressively in the region.
Tensions between the U.S. and China quickly deteriorated after the ‘phase-one’ trade deal was signed in December. At this point, it seems like the two superpowers have all but given up on bridging their differences amicably. China has been running amok in the South China Sea since the pandemic forced most of the world’s leaders to focus on problems at home. However, U.S. officials hope that the threat of American military might will check Chinese aggression in the region, at least for the time being.