The Chinese maritime authorities declared in late June that an expanse of the South China Sea around the Paracel Islands — called the Xisha Islands in Chinese — would be off limits to other vessels for the first five days of July while Chinese military exercises took place there.
The Chinese government had no immediate public reaction to the announcement about the two American carriers, but Beijing is most unlikely to buy the idea that the move was just a coincidence. A smaller U.S. Navy operation in the South China Sea over recent days had already drawn ire from China.
“This provocative conduct by the United States gravely violates the relevant international laws and rules, and seriously violates Chinese sovereignty and security interests,” Senior Col. Li Huamin, a spokesman of the Chinese military Southern Theater Command, said after the U.S.S. Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship, conducted operations last week in the South China Sea, according to Global Times, a Beijing newspaper. “This is deliberately increasing security risks in the region and could very easily spark an unforeseen incident.”
China claims many islands and outcrops and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea as its territory, despite rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as from Taiwan. Beijing has regularly accused the United States of provoking tensions through military operations in the sea, while the United States and other countries maintain their operations are entirely lawful, and a way of reminding China not to restrict passage through the area.
“As a country lying outside the region, the United States has been using the excuse of ‘freedom of navigation’ to dispatch military-use ship and planes to make provocations in the East and South China Seas,” Senior Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, said at a news conference in Beijing late last month. “This is seriously damaging regional peace and stability.”
The Ronald Reagan is usually stationed in Japan; the Nimitz reached Asia’s coast on June 17 and has also been conducting joint exercises with another aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt returned to sea on June 4. It had spent weeks docked in Guam, with its crew quarantined, to deal with a coronavirus outbreak aboard earlier this year.
Chris Buckley contributed reporting.
Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/04/us/politics/south-china-sea-aircraft-carrier.html