China says US sent ships to South China Sea to flex its muscles

A US warship conducting operations in the South China Sea on April 28, 2020.
A US warship conducting operations in the South China Sea on April 28, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's foreign ministry said on Monday (July 6) that the United States had deliberately sent its ships to the South China Sea to flex its muscles, and accused Washington of trying to drive a wedge between the countries in the region.

Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made the comments during a daily press briefing in Beijing in response to a question about two US aircraft carriers conducting operations and exercises in South China Sea.

China also warned that it reserved the right to take additional action in response to Canada suspending its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday it was suspending the extradition treaty with Hong Kong due to the new national security legislation for the city, which China condemned as interference on its internal affairs.

The comments come as two US Navy aircraft carriers are conducting exercises in the contested South China Sea within sight of Chinese naval vessels spotted near the flotilla.

The commander of one of the carriers, the USS Nimitz, told Reuters on Monday:  “They have seen us and we have seen them.”   Rear Admiral James Kirk was speaking  in a telephone interview from the Nimitz, which has been conducting flight drills in the waterway with the Seventh Fleet carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, that began on the US Independence Day holiday of July 4. 

The US Navy has brought carriers together for such shows of force in the region in the past, but this year’s drill comes amid heightened tension as the United States criticises China over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere. 

The Pentagon, when it announced the dual carrier exercise, said it wanted to “stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”, describing its 100,000-ton ships and the 90 or so aircraft they each carry as a “symbol of resolve”. 

About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups. China claims nine-tenths of  the resource-rich South China Sea, through which some US$3 trillion (S$4.2 trillion)  of trade passes a year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims. 

China has built island bases atop atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful. 

Contacts with Chinese ships had been without incident, Kirk said. “We have the expectation that we will always have interactions that are professional and safe,” he said. “We are operating in some pretty congested waters, lots of maritime traffic of all sorts.”