In the first large-scale "freedom of navigation" operation aimed at Beijing since the start of the Biden presidency, the U.S. Navy announced Tuesday that a pair of carrier strike groups were conducting exercises in the South China Sea.
The move — a show of strength apparently meant to signal the new administration's determination to stand firm against China's steady encroachment in the strategic waterway — comes just days after the destroyer USS John S. McCain conducted operations in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, a disputed archipelago in the region claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Tuesday's announcement also comes amid historically strained relations between the U.S. and China, as the two powers struggle to sort out a number of thorny issues ranging from trade and intellectual property theft to Beijing's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the latest operation, ships and aircraft from carrier strike groups led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz "coordinated operations in a highly trafficked area to demonstrate the U.S. Navy's ability to operate in challenging environments," according to a statement from the U.S. 7th Fleet.
The last such "dual carrier" operation in the South China Sea occurred some eight months ago, when the Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan groups operated together.
Strike Group Nine, led by the Nimitz, is commanded by Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo. Strike Group Eleven, with the USS Theodore Roosevelt, is commanded by Rear Adm. Jim Kirk.
"Through operations like this, we ensure that we are tactically proficient to meet the challenge of maintaining peace and we are able to continue to show our partners and allies in the region that we are committed to promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific," Verissimo said in the 7th Fleet statement.
In recent years, the South China Sea has become a hotbed of Cold War-style showdowns between Washington and Beijing. China — with its growing and increasingly assertive navy — has sought to dominate the strategically important and petroleum-rich waterway, seeing it as a vital arena for projecting power. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the region.
Responding on Tuesday to the U.S. carrier operations, Beijing's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said "China will take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security" in the South China Sea.
Despite protests from its maritime neighbors and a 2016 international ruling rejecting its claims, Beijing asserts sovereignty over 90% of the South China Sea, through which trillions in trade flows each year. It has pressed ahead to unilaterally occupy key islands and reefs. In the Paracels, for example, it has built infrastructure that could be used for military purposes.
The U.S. has responded to China's muscle flexing with a series of "freedom of navigation operations" conducted by U.S. ships and planes aimed at reinforcing internationally recognized boundaries and challenging Beijing's maritime claims.
"We are committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea that all nations enjoy under international law," Kirk, the commander of the Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group, said in Tuesday's statement.
Meanwhile, France said one of its submarines had just completed a similar deployment to the region.
French Defense Minister Florence Parly tweeted Monday that the nuclear attack submarine Emeraude and naval support ship Seine had been in the area since September to "affirm that international law is the only rule that is valid, whatever the sea where we sail."
"This extraordinary patrol just completed its passage in the South China Sea," Parly wrote. "This is striking proof of the capacity of our French navy to deploy far away and for a long time, together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners."
China's foreign and defense ministries made no immediate comment on the statement from Paris.