Beijing ‘is ready to counter US’ as both navies hold drills in South China Sea

Catherine Wong
·5-min read

China has accused the United States of having “ulterior motives” in sending two aircraft carrier strike groups to the disputed South China Sea, while its state media reported that Beijing stands ready to counter the challenge posed by Washington.

The US has sent two aircraft carriers, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, to the disputed waters for military exercises starting on Saturday – overlapping with drills China is holding in the region.

These drills are some of the US Navy’s biggest in recent years, and it is rare for major US and Chinese military exercises to take place in the same region at the same time.

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“They have seen us and we have seen them,” Rear Admiral James Kirk said from the Nimitz.

Contacts with Chinese ships had been without incident, Kirk said.

“We have the expectation that we will always have interactions that are professional and safe,” he said. “We are operating in some pretty congested waters, lots of maritime traffic of all sorts.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday said the situation in the South China Sea was stable, but claimed the US aimed to stir up trouble between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations.

“The US intentionally sent a military deployment for large-scale exercises in the South China Sea, and to show off its muscle,” Zhao said. “They have ulterior motives. The US is creating division among nations in the region and militarising the South China Sea.”

The US move comes days after China began exercises – which ran from last Wednesday until Sunday – near the disputed Paracel Islands.

Rear Admiral George Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, said in an interview that the purpose of the drills was to “show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability”.

Wikoff declined to specify the area in which the carriers would operate. He said that the latest US drills were a response not to the Chinese ones but to Beijing’s rising military assertiveness in the region.

The US military said on Twitter that B52 bombers were also involved in the exercise, and that the two strike groups would not be intimidated by China.

Earlier in June, the USS Nimitz conducted exercises in the Philippine Sea just outside the South China Sea, along with the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Beijing must learn to lead and share in South China Sea, experts say

Wang Yunfei, a retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) naval officer, said China was prepared to counter “threats” posed by the US.

“China has several times experienced the threats posed by the US in the sea with its deployment of multiple aircraft carriers,” Wang said in an article on the website of Phoenix Television, a partially state-owned television network.

“China’s resolve to safeguard its territorial integrity, sovereignty and maritime interests will not waver [after] the latest threat posed by the US. The Chinese military is prepared and will deal with the [threat] with ease.”

Nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times also quoted military analysts saying Beijing had full control over the situation.

“China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 ‘aircraft carrier killer’ missiles,” the newspaper said, quoting analysts. “The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the PLA; any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is at the pleasure of the PLA.”

Wang said China had conducted exercises with ballistic missiles, air-to-ship missiles and anti-ship missiles over the past year in the central region of the South China Sea to prepare for strikes against aircraft carriers from foreign countries.

The latest US exercises in the area would provide a real-life target for the PLA navy in testing its capabilities, Wang said, adding that China may conduct another round of exercises in the sea in August.

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Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the risk of escalation remained low as both sides would refrain from “coming to blows”.

“At present, China is still trying to recover economically from the pandemic, and while the recent national security law might have given some hope to Beijing that it could soon have one less domestic thorn in the flesh to worry about, it’s by no means all rosy in the foreseeable future,” he said.

“But the problem is that while we may see less likelihood of a premeditated clash, if the opposing forces operate close to each other in the South China Sea, one can’t discount the possibility of an inadvertent clash.”

Additional reporting by Reuters

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