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The USS Nimitz is one of two aircraft carriers taking part in a large-scale naval exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy

US and Chinese naval exercises overlap in South China Sea

  • Two carriers and four warships head to disputed waters as PLA Navy holds five days of drills near Paracels
  • Operation commander says move is part of general response to Beijing assertiveness
The US Navy is sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea for exercises just as Beijing conducts military drills of its own in the disputed region, according to a senior US military official quoted by The Wall Street Journal.

The USS Ronald Reagan, the USS Nimitz and four other warships will hold large-scale exercises in the South China Sea starting on Saturday, according to the report, which cited Rear Admiral George Wikoff, commander of the operation. The exact location was not disclosed.

“The purpose [of the planned exercises] is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Wikoff said, according to the report, which also said the operation would include “round-the-clock flights testing the striking ability of carrier-based aircraft”.

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The US Navy operation takes place at the same time as five days of drills by China’s military near the Paracel Islands, which started on Wednesday. It also comes amid heightened bilateral tensions over a number of issues, most recently the passage of national security legislation for Hong Kong by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing.

The Paracels are the subject of overlapping claims between China, which calls them the Xisha Islans, and Vietnam, where they are known as the Hoang Sa Islands.

The Philippines’ Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called China’s exercises “highly provocative”, while Vietnam’s foreign ministry said they were a violation of sovereignty that could harm Beijing’s relationship with Asean.

The US Navy’s operation follows a warning from the US Department of Defence on Thursday that Beijing’s military exercises “are the latest in a long string of … actions [by China] to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea”.


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A statement from the defence department said China’s actions “stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarise the South China Sea and the United States' vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms”.

Wikoff told The Wall Street Journal the US Navy exercise was not so much a response to the Chinese naval exercises as a more general reaction to Beijing’s rising military assertiveness.

China notified the UN in December that Beijing had sovereign rights to all islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels.

In July 2016, a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague determined China had no “historic rights” over the South China Sea and ruled that some of its reefs claimed by several countries could not legally be used as the basis for territorial claims. Beijing rejected the ruling and described it has having “no binding force”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US and Chinese exercises overlap in South China Sea