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US steps up firepower as China consolidates gains in South China Sea

China's military base on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Google Maps/Released)

The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier strike groups recently demonstrated what the Navy called “unmatched sea power” while conducting rare dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea, as military muscle flexing continues on both sides of growing discord in the region.

“These efforts support enduring U.S. commitments to stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the Navy said in a release.

The hawkish Global Times, a tabloid under the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, fumed over the latest U.S. show of power, which in recent days has included an Army paratrooper drop on Guam and a B-52 bomber link-up with aircraft carrier-based Navy planes in the South China Sea.

But a Marine Corps officer and air defense expert in the Indo-Pacific region writing in The Diplomat predicted a summer of further U.S. discontent as China consolidates its already formidable gains.

Zachary Williams noted that the Chinese coast guard sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, a Chinese survey ship loitered in Malaysian oil-drilling seas and China announced two new administrative districts covering disputed maritime features.

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“The bar is set on expectations (for) Chinese aggression in the South China Sea for the rest of the year,” Williams said.

Part of the dual-carrier exercise is believed to be aimed at sending the message that COVID-19 hasn’t crippled U.S. forces in the region after a third aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was sidelined on Guam for nearly two months due to a coronavirus outbreak.

China had announced five days of drills near the Paracel Islands.

“At a time when relations between China and the U.S. are further deteriorating over a series of topics including trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the U.S. has deployed two aircraft carriers and other warships to the South China Sea for its largest-scale exercises in the region in years, which also coincided with Chinese military drills taking place in the same area and time frame,” Global Times wrote Sunday.

The two U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups “are nothing more than paper tigers on China’s doorsteps,” as the region “is fully within the grasp” of the People’s Liberation Army with “specially made weapons that can destroy (an) aircraft carrier,” the publication said.

Global Times tweeted Saturday that China’s arsenal includes DF-21D and DF-26 missiles known as “carrier killers,” and any U.S. aircraft carrier movement in the region “is at the pleasure of” the People’s Liberation Army.

To that threat, the U.S. Chief of Naval Information tweeted, “And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz &#USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated. #AtOurDiscretion.”

Each aircraft carrier has more than 5,000 crew and 60 aircraft.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, through which $3.37 trillion in global trade passes annually.

The defense leaders of the U.S., Japan and Australia on Tuesday expressed “serious concern” over recent actions by China in the South China Sea, including the continued militarization of disputed features, “dangerous or coercive use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia,” and efforts to disrupt resource exploration by other countries.

On June 30 more than 350 paratroopers from the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Airborne out of Alaska parachuted onto Guam as part of an “emergency deployment readiness exercise” described by the Army as “the largest airborne operation here in recent memory.”

The soldiers flew on multiple C-17 cargo carriers from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, with a mission to secure an airfield in the Pacific. The exercise is an indicator of the Pentagon’s plan to operate from remote islands in the western Pacific in the event of conflict with China.

“This scenario tested our ability to execute real-world missions and demonstrated that we are capable of deploying anywhere in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area at a moment’s notice,” Col. Christopher Landers, commander of the 4th Brigade, said in an Army-produced news story.

Meanwhile, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber from the 96th Bomb Squadron took off from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and participated in a maritime integration exercise with the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups in the South China Sea before landing Saturday at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.

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© 2020 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser