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China on Monday criticized joint naval exercises conducted by two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups in the South China Sea on July 4, accusing the U.S of undermining stability in the region.
In a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the exercises were performed “totally out of ulterior motives,” adding that the U.S. “deliberately dispatched massive forces…to flex its military muscle,” the Associated Press reported.
The U.S. Navy had said that its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan along with their supporting vessels and aircraft had conducted exercises “designed to maximize air defense capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
The Navy’s official Twitter account had shared a video of the exercise adding that the carriers had celebrated Independence Day “with unmatched sea power while deployed to the South China Sea… in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The U.S. operations took place within sight of Chinese naval vessels, Reuters reported.
China had begun conducting its own naval exercises in the sea on July 1, around the Paracel Islands, which it had seized from Vietnam in 1974.
Tensions between the two countries have risen in the past months over trade, the coronavirus pandemic and China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.
Through the exercises, the U.S. aims to send a message to Beijing that “it’s not backing down, and that it’s still able to do this,” Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNBC, referring to the U.S. aim to demonstrate that its ability to project force in the region hasn’t been hurt by coronavirus outbreaks in the Navy.
Responding to an article on the Chinese military’s “aircraft carrier killer missiles” shared on Twitter the Chinese state-controlled outlet Global Times, the US Navy Chief of Information tweeted, “And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated #AtOurDiscretion.”
China claims about 90% of the South China Sea, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year. In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s claims of sovereignty over the waters in a case brought by the Philippines. While this decision was legally binding, China has refused to abide by it as there has been no mechanism to enforce it. Other countries like Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam have also challenged China’s assertion on the region. To push back against China’s unilateral seizure of the reefs and construction of military installations on the sea, the U.S. has in, recent years, increased what it refers to as freedom of navigation operations, in which its naval vessels sail near Chinese-held islands and other disputed territory in the sea. In the midst of the pandemic, China has moved to project its military and political power in its neighborhood. In the past few weeks, China has engaged in clashes with the Indian military along their disputed border, with Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea, and twice sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. Beijing has also unilaterally moved to seize new powers over Hong Kong. The U.S. Navy has sought to show that its operational capabilities haven’t been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, the navy operated three carrier strike groups in the Pacific, for the first time since 2017.