WASHINGTON — Two American aircraft carriers sailed to the South China Sea on Saturday for what Navy officials described as a freedom-of-navigation operation while China’s military conducts exercises nearby.
The carriers — the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz — deployed “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement by the Navy’s Seventh Fleet. It said that the ships, which were accompanied by warships and aircraft, were conducting exercises to improve air defense and long-range missile strikes in “a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
Beijing has staked claim to much of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which one-third of global shipping flows, over the objections of other regional powers and an international tribunal that has rejected China’s assertions.
The deployment of an American aircraft carrier and its strike force is often used as a signal to deter adversaries. Deploying two at once is recognized as a significant show of force; in 2016, the then Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter toured two aircraft carriers that were cruising through the South China Sea as a reminder to Beijing of the United States’ commitment to allies in the region.
A Navy official on Saturday described the mission as a routine operation, downplaying the specter of a deliberate show of force to the Chinese military as it conducted its own military exercises in the sea. The official, who was not authorized to describe the details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the carriers’ mission had been previously planned to ensure that shipping lanes and navigation remained open in international waters.
Lt. James Adams, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, said the operation “is not in response to any political or world events.”
But earlier this week, the Pentagon said it was monitoring China’s military exercises in disputed waters and territory near the Paracel Islands.
“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a July 2 statement.
It also said that the Chinese exercises, which were supposed to conclude on Sunday, violated a 2002 agreement on international conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing’s actions, the statement said, “will further destabilize the situation in the South China Sea.”
The Ronald Reagan is usually stationed in Japan; the Nimitz reached Asia’s coast on June 17 and has also been conducting joint exercises with another aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt returned to sea on June 4. It had spent weeks docked in Guam, with its crew quarantined, to deal with a coronavirus outbreak aboard earlier this year.