The Wall Street Journal has cited American strike group commander Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff as saying that the US Navy is sending two aircraft carriers to the South China Sea to take part in a military drill.
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, as well as several accompanying ships, are due to arrive in the area later on Saturday, according to Wikoff.
“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability”, he pointed out without elaborating on the exact location of the US exercises.
The rear admiral added that the drills were not a response to those currently being carried out by Beijing in the South China Sea, and earlier slammed by the Pentagon as “counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability”.
Wikoff was echoed by US Seventh Fleet spokesman Joe Jeiley, who said that “operating two carrier strike groups in the South China Sea provides advanced training opportunities for our forces” and gives “combatant commanders significant operational flexibility should those forces be called upon in response to regional situations”.
“The presence of two carriers is not in response to any political or world events. This advanced capability is one of many ways the US Navy promotes security, stability, and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific”.
The statement comes after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian rejected the US Department of Defence’s crtiticism of Beijing’s drills in the South China Sea, which he said are being conducted within the scope of China’s sovereignty.
In an apparent reference to the US, the spokesman added that certain “non-regional countries” carrying out military exercises in the South China Sea affects the region’s stability.
The remarks followed the Pentagon saying in a statement on Thursday that China’s “military exercises are the latest in a long string of PRC [People’s Republic of China] actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for his part, described the Chinese drills as “highly provocative”, tweeting that the US “opposes Beijing’s unlawful claims [to the South China Sea]”.
Apart from China, the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, which are among the more frequently disputed territories in the South China, are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. China has exerted de facto control over the Paracels since 1974.
The US has no claims to the territories, but its navy occasionally challenges Beijing by conducting so-called “Freedom of Navigation” missions in the South China Sea. This draws harsh criticism from Beijing which rejects such operations as “provocations”.