The United States Navy said Saturday that two of its aircraft carriers — the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan and U.S.S. Nimitz — were conducting exercises in the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China despite objections from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. The exercises by the two U.S. carriers, as well as four other warships, reportedly include flights testing the striking ability of carrier-based aircraft.
The Navy said the purpose of the operations is to unambiguously "signal to our partners and allies" that the U.S. is "committed to regional security and stability" rather than serve as a response to exercises conducted by China nearby. It's no secret, though, that the strategic waterway has long been a point of tension between the two powers whose relationship is deteriorating over a trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and Beijing's recent crackdown on Hong Kong's autonomy.
The Wall Street Journal, which initially reported the story, described the South China Sea as central to China's plan to project strength beyond its traditional boundaries. Over the last few years, Beijing has been stocking artificial islands in the sea with missiles and jamming equipment that hinder operations by the U.S. and its allies, making it one of the most consequential hot spots in the world. Read more at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. Tim O'Donnell
On Thursday in Manila, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that U.S. Navy ships have started patrolling the South China Sea alongside the Philippines, in unusual joint military exercises. The U.S. is keeping 300 troops in the Philippines through the end of April, along with attack helicopters and other combat aircraft, Carter said in a joint news conference with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmi, and similar U.S. military contingents will cycle through the Philippines after this group leaves.
China has been expanding its own military presence in the South China Sea, roiling other Asian countries with competing claims to the body of water. The Philippines is especially concerned about the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area that China took over in 2012. Carter said that the U.S. isn't trying to provoke China, adding, "We're trying to tamp down tensions here." But Gazmi said the U.S. military "presence here will deter uncalled-for actions by the Chinese." Peter Weber
Military officials in the U.S. and Taiwan have confirmed that China has deployed advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems on Woody Island, one of the Paracel Island chain controlled by China for more than 40 years but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The placement of the anti-aircraft batteries — believed to be China's HQ-9, with a range of 125 miles — was discovered by civilian satellite company ImageSat International as President Obama was wrapping up an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California, where one topic was de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi both defended Beijing's "right to self-protection" through "the limited and necessary self-defense facilities that China has built on islands and reefs we have people stationed on," and scolded "Western media" for focusing on armaments and not the lighthouses China has built to protect commercial ships. China's defense ministry told Reuters that the reports of new missiles was pure "hype" and that defense installations have been in place on "relevant islands and reefs" for years.
Analysts were split on whether the missile deployment was timed to disrupt or embarrass the ASEAN summit. "I think China has planned these deployments for some time," Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told The Wall Street Journal. “China has recently built hardened shelters for fighter aircraft on Woody Island. It isn't surprising that they are deploying SAMs to defend them." The analysts at Fox News, which first reported the deployment, disagree. You can watch the report below. Peter Weber