The United States and China have just simultaneously conducted military exercises in the disputed South China Sea, dueling big boat deployments that threaten to tilt the volatile maritime region ever closer to a superpower conflict.
The US Navy deployed two aircraft carriers, namely the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, to the sea while marking America’s Independence Day on July 4.
The Pentagon described the dual-carrier operations, the first launched since 2014, as “exercises in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“Sailors from both carrier strike groups continue to stand the watch, defending freedom every day of deployment, and reflecting on the freedoms we hold sacred and celebrate during this holiday,” the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said in a statement.
At the same time, China displayed its latest warships, including Type 052D guided-missile destroyers and Type 054A guided-missile frigates, in integrated military exercises across the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Yellow Sea.
Crucially, the PLA has also been testing its new anti-aircraft carrier weapons, the so-called “aircraft carrier killer” DF-21D and DF-26 missiles, which in any conflict scenario could target America’s largest vessels from Chinese shores.
China maintained that its drills were “regularly scheduled” and simply “aimed at safeguarding China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and do not target any other country.”
“The fundamental cause of instability in the South China Sea is due to large-scale military activities and flexing of muscles by some non-regional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away,” maintained Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian in referring to the US naval exercises.
China’s state-affiliated state media took a more skeptical line on America’s latest show of naval force in the area.
Chinese military expert Song Zhongping, meanwhile, said, “it’s unrealistic for the US to wage a war against China with just two aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, and it’s very unlikely the two sides could accidentally spark a conflict due to the drills.”
“The PLA can conduct surveillance missions on US drills, and expel US surveillance attempts using proper measures,” he added.
The US’ latest deployments have coincided with a chorus of criticism against China’s strategic opportunism amid a devastating pandemic.
During the recently-concluded summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc criticized China, without directly naming the country, for “irresponsible acts and acts in violation of international law” while “the entire world is stretched thin in the fight against the pandemic.”
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in turn, reiterated “ASEAN must be the guardian of our own region not the projection of power by bigger nations.”
The most surprisingly strident response, however, came from the Philippines, which has developed especially warm ties with China under President Rodrigo Duterte.
In response to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) early-July military drills in the Paracel Islands, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr warned on July 3 of a “severest response” if Chinse military activities extended into Philippine-claimed waters.
The Philippines’ diplomatic chief accused China of aiming to “establish a perennial and unchallenged presence that may in time congeal into right” and that Beijing was “playing fast and loose with historical narratives.”
“I will end on what has become a trite but still true statement: We call on the erring parties to refrain from escalating tension and abide by the responsibilities under international law, notably UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” Locsin added, directly accusing China of contributing to regional instability.
Last month, the Philippines suspended its earlier decision to abrogate a key defense agreement that allowed for the rotational presence of US soldiers in the country. Top Philippine officials made it clear that the policy reversal was driven by anxieties over China’s maritime assertiveness in recent months.
Regional states seem to be encouraged by the US’ determined pushback and apparent new willingness to put naval muscle behind its rhetoric. The Pentagon was quick to criticize China’s latest South China Sea drills as “counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability,”
At the same time, the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet described its dual-carrier deployment as “high-end integrated exercises” that aim to “build unmatched flexibility, endurance, maneuverability, and firepower in an all-domain warfighting environment.”
“These efforts support enduring US commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” said the US Navy statement, underscoring the broader strategic and symbolic value of its latest show of force in the disputed waters.
Rear Admiral George Wikoff, commander of Carrier Strike Group 5, however, denied that the recent dual-carrier deployment was a direct response to China’s large-scale drills in the South China Sea.
“We aggressively seek out every opportunity to advance and strengthen our capabilities and proficiency at conducting all-domain warfighting operations,” Wikoff added, while portraying the dual-carrier deployment as part of “routine” exercises to project American leadership.
“Dual carrier operations demonstrate our commitment to regional allies, our ability to rapidly mass combat power in the Indo-Pacific, and our readiness to confront all those who challenge international norms that support regional stability,” said the US commander. “The US Navy remains mission-ready and globally deployed.”
Earlier this year, the US had to temporarily suspend overseas military deployment and ground the iconic USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier amid an epidemic outbreak, raising new questions about America’s ability and resolve to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at a time China was showing signs of rising assertiveness.