U.S. sends two carriers to disputed South China Sea

The U.S. sent two aircraft carrier strike groups for joint operations in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, the Navy said, as new President Joe Biden shows no signs of backing down from Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness in the area.

The dual carrier operations in the flash point waterway were the first there since last July and come just under three weeks since Biden was sworn into office on Jan. 20. The new administration has called China the United States’ “most critical challenge” and “most serious competitor.”

Tuesday’s exercises saw the USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Nimitz strike groups conduct “a multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities,” the U.S. Navy said.

Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of the Roosevelt strike group, called the chance to train with the Nimitz group in the South China Sea “a tremendously valuable opportunity.”

“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.

According to the Navy, dual carrier operations were last conducted in the South China Sea in July, when the USS Ronald Reagan and Nimitz strike groups linked up.

The show of U.S. military might in the South China Sea comes as the two powers spar over the disputed waterway and nearby Taiwan, as well as a raft of other issues including trade, technology and espionage.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group transits in formation with the USS Nimitz strike group during dual carrier operations in the South China Sea on Tuesday. | U.S. NAVY

Beijing claims some 90% of the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flow every year, despite overlapping claims by others in the region, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei. It has reclaimed and militarized a number of islands in the waters despite protests from other claimants and the United States.

The U.S. and Japan fear the Chinese-held outposts, some of which boast military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry, could be used to restrict free movement in an area that includes vital sea lanes.

Last week, the U.S. Navy conducted its first “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea and its first transit of the Taiwan Strait under the Biden administration.

The dual carrier operations came as a French nuclear attack submarine was among two navy ships that recently conducted a patrol through the waterway, France’s defense chief said in a tweet Monday.

The Emeraude submarine was joined by the support ship Seine for the passage, Defense Minister Florence Parly wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of the vessel.

Mission Marianne : depuis septembre, un sous-marin nucléaire d’attaque (SNA Émeraude) ainsi qu’un bâtiment de soutien (BSAM Seine) ont navigué jusqu’à 15 000 km des côtes métropolitaines dans l’océan Indien et le Pacifique. pic.twitter.com/ojRN51BUYI — Florence Parly (@florence_parly) February 8, 2021

“This extraordinary patrol has just completed a passage in the South China Sea,” Parly wrote. “This is striking proof of the capacity of the French Navy to deploy far away for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners.”

France, the United States and Japan are expected to hold joint military drills on land and at sea for the first time in May, Japanese media reported late last year, with the message aimed squarely at countering China and bolstering multilateral cooperation.