US carrier drills in disputed South China Sea while China closes waters for own exercises

USS Ronald Reagan has conducted demonstrative flight operations training to promote ‘peace through strength’ in the South China Sea, next to disputed strategic atolls where China has been holding its own military drills.

To showcase the strike group’s capabilities, the US Navy airlifted a small group of Philippine officers to the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier on Tuesday. The military brass of the island nation, which has been reluctant to side with the US in any open confrontation with China, were shown maneuvers by the USS Reagan’s air wing, comprising about 70 F/A-18 jets, spy planes, and helicopters.

The ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the area Beijing repeatedly warned Washington to stay clear of took place just as China launched its own two-day military exercises near the disputed Paracel Islands. China’s Maritime Safety Administration issued multiple warnings about closed waters, but shared no additional details of the planned drills.

China has repeatedly claimed sovereignty over certain islets and reefs and adjacent waters, and has taken steps to protect its claims by setting up defense installations in the area, also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. However, Beijing has said that it was open to resolving any disputes with neighbors through direct negotiation, without outside influence or interference.

Amid escalating trade tensions and US commitments to advance their interests in the Indo-Pacific region, last month the Chinese military published a white paper making it explicitly clear that the People’s Liberation Army is ready to fight to defend country’s sovereignty.