WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States has sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea at the same time that China is conducting military exercises in the contested waterway, the US Navy said.
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan were carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the navy said in a statement.
China and the United States have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.
It did not say exactly where the exercises were being conducted in the South China Sea, which extends for some 1,500km and 90 per cent of which is claimed by China despite the protests of its neighbours.
“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff was quoted as saying by the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the exercises.
Mr Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the Ronald Reagan, said the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China, which the Pentagon criticised this week as “counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability”.
China dismissed the US criticism of its drills on Friday and suggested the United States was to blame for increasing tensions.
US carriers have long carried out exercises in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, according to the US navy.
At one point recently, the United States had three carriers in the region.
China announced last week it had scheduled five days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.
Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticised the planned Chinese drills, warning they could create tension in the region and impact Beijing's relationship with its neighbours.
The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
China claims 90 per cent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4.18 trillion) of trade passes each year.
The US statement said the naval exercises gave commanders the flexibility and capabilities “that only the US Navy can command”.