Three US Navy aircraft carriers have been deployed in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in three years, in a show of force that's prompted a backlash from China.
The Trump administration deployed the USS Ronald Reagan, USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Nimitz to the region, with each containing more than 60 aircraft.
The Chinese government, which has also increased its military presence in the region, responded swiftly, warning that "countermeasures" could be taken against the US.
While the US said its move was part of efforts to safeguard against the possibility of another coronavirus outbreak in the region, experts say it was also intended to send a symbolic message of strength to China.
US DEPLOYS THREE CARRIERS INTO DISPUTED AREA
The USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Theodore Roosevelt are currently patrolling in the western Pacific, while the USS Nimitz is in the east, according to US Navy press releases.
It's an unusual move; the last deployment of US aircraft carriers in the Pacific of this size was back in 2017, when tensions with North Korea over nuclear weapons were peaking.
The US launched the deployment on June 4, after a coronavirus outbreak forced the USS Roosevelt into port in Guam in March, which saw more than 1000 of the ship's nearly 4900-member crew test positive for the virus.
The US national defence strategy cites China as a top security concern, and the Pentagon has been working to shift more of its resources and military assets into the region to counter Beijing's growing economic influence and military there, Associated Press reported.
"Carriers and carrier strike groups writ large are phenomenal symbols of American naval power. I really am pretty fired up that we've got three of them at the moment," said Rear Admiral Stephen Koehler, director of operations at Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.
The convergence of three carrier strike groups in the region is unusual because of the limited number of carriers and the fact that they are often cycling through repair schedules, port visits, training or deployments to other parts of the world.
This week, however, Navy commanders said they were able to take advantage of the timing, particularly during this period of great power competition with China.
Experts say Washington is seeking to bolster its military capabilities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as tensions between the two remain on the boil.
"There have been some indications in Chinese writings that the United States was hit hard by Covid-19, that military preparedness was low, so perhaps there is an effort by the United States to signal (to) China that it should not miscalculate," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Chinese will definitely portray this as an example of US provocations, and as evidence that the US is a source of instability in the region."
The move comes as the US escalates criticism of Beijing's response to the coronavirus outbreak, its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong and its campaign to militarise human-made islands in the South China Sea.
CHINA ISSUES A WARNING IN RESPONSE
On Sunday, the Chinese government's hawkish Global Times newspaper dismissed the deployment as a "mere show of vanity".
It quoted a research expert saying that the US "seems to worry that the outside world is doubting its military capability".
"Therefore, the US Navy decided to send its carrier strike groups to flex muscles in the West Pacific region, exhibiting to other countries that their combat capability was ultimately not hindered by the novel coronavirus pandemic."
But in a follow-up piece published last night, Beijing took a more aggressive approach, warning that "countermeasures" in the region may be taken.
"By massing these aircraft carriers, the US is attempting to demonstrate to the whole region and even the world that it remains the most powerful naval force, as they could enter the South China Sea and threaten Chinese troops on the Xisha and Nansha islands (Paracel and Spratly Islands) as well as vessels passing through nearby waters, so the US could carry out its hegemonic politics," the Global Times report quoted Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, as saying.
It also noted that Beijing could hold drills in response to show off its firepower.
"China possesses aircraft carrier killer weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles," the story said.
It added: "Naval and aerial forces of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) have expelled many US warships that illegally entered China's territorial waters off the Xisha and Nansha islands in the South China Sea this year, according to PLA statements."
US-CHINA TENSIONS CONTINUE TO RISE
The sudden deployments come at a time of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing over the South China Sea, as well as other issues like Taiwan and the origins of Covid-19.
President Donald Trump, who faces increasing criticism over his own handling of the virus outbreak, has repeatedly condemned the Chinese government for what he said was a failure to adequately warn the world about Covid-19.
Tensions between the two countries are only expected to worsen ahead of the November election.
China has repeatedly accused the US of pushing for an economic "cold war", with state media reports warning of dire consequences.
Last week, China condemned the US military over the "provocative" flight of one of its aircraft over Chinese-claimed Taiwan, saying it contravened international law.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office said the US aircraft had "harmed our sovereignty, security and development rights, and contravened international law and the basic norms of international relations".
"It was an illegal act and a seriously provocative incident," the office said in a statement carried by state media. "We express strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition."
The United States has stepped up its military activities near the island too, with ongoing US Navy voyages through the narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the island from China.
- Additional reporting, AP