Stoking tensions with Beijing, the US sailed an aircraft carrier strike group into the South China Sea on Monday. The US Navy said Tuesday that the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan entered the disputed waters accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh and the guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey.
The Navy described the provocation as a “routine” mission. “Carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the US Navy’s routine presence in the Indo-Pacific,” the Navy said. The presence of US aircraft carriers in the South China Sea was a rare occurrence until recently.
Since the Obama administration, the US has been sailing warships near Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s claims in maneuvers Washington dubbed Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). While FONOPs still happen, the US has established a more constant military presence in the region. In recent months, US warships have been spotted closely shadowing Chinese vessels.
With so many US warships in the region, it creates the risk of a possible accident with the Chinese military that could turn into a wider conflict due to the fact that US-China relations are at their lowest point in decades. Recognizing the danger, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said a communication line with China was crucial. But the Pentagon chief did not suggest reducing the US military footprint in the region, which would be the only real way to mitigate the risk.