- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The commanders of two Navy aircraft carrier strike groups sailing in the contested South China say their operations demonstrated support for the idea of freedom on the seas.

Rear Adm. Jim Kirk, commander of a warship battle group headed by the USS Nimitz, said the dual-carrier operations now underway in the waters off East Asia give military commanders “unmatched operational flexibility if the need arises.”

“Our training exercises enhance our ability to provide regional air defense, and expand our reach of operations to respond to those who challenge regional stability,” Adm. Kirk said, making a clear but indirect reference to China.

Beijing has claimed 90 percent of the South China Sea as its sovereign maritime territory, a claim rejected by the United States and nations around the region.

The operations this week included 24-hour carrier flight operations of warplanes from the Nimitz and the second carrier, USS Ronald Reagan. The combined strike groups include six guided-missile warships.

The carrier air wings so far have conducted hundreds of sorties in the sea as part of U.S. efforts to support regional allies, Adm. Kirk said.

Rear Adm. George Wikoff, who heads the Reagan strike group, said the more than 6,000 sailors aboard the two carrier groups are bolstering security commitments to regional allies.

The operations “reinforce international norms that support the free and open Indo-Pacific,” Adm. Wikoff said. “While working together as one strike force, we have demonstrated how the U.S. Navy fields a responsive and flexible and unmatched maritime team, committed to mutual defense agreements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”

Chinese naval officials are closely watching the carrier, and in the past People’s Liberation Army naval fleets have tried unsuccessfully to force U.S. Navy warships out of the area.

“We saw plenty of the Chinese navy operating around us as we did our exercises,” Adm. Kirk said.

The Chinese presence near the exercises “helped us raise our level of readiness as we go against each other through training,” he said. “So that was a marvelous opportunity for us.”

Despite the monitoring, there have been no incidents so far involving the Chinese.

“We certainly saw the PLA navy and they certainly saw us,” he added. “We expect all nations to operate safe and professionally during any of our maritime operations and those expectations were met.”

Adm. Wikoff said the military activities were carried out in line with international norms for sailing in open seas.”During our operations we had opportunities to work with several nations,” Adm. Wikoff said. “What the dual-carrier operations allowed us to do was to simulate a complex training scenario that really improves our overall combat power at sea.”

The carrier show of force prompted a social media showdown of sorts pitting the Navy against China’s state-run Global Times news outlet on Twitter.

The Global Times tweeted a veiled threat to the carrier groups noting China’s “wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26’aircraft carrier killer’ #missiles.”

“South China Sea is fully within grasp of the #PLA; any US #aircraftcarrier movement in the region is at the pleasure of PLA,” the Global Times tweeted.

Rear Adm. Charlie Brown, chief of navy information tweeted back: “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.”

Asked about the exchange, Adm. Kirk noted interesting comments by Chinese government spokesmen.

“We solely operate in accordance with international law and we align with those like-minded nations that promote rule-of-law in the region,” he said, adding, “We were just honing our skills together to ensure that we were able to raise our combat readiness to its highest level and we were able to do that.”

Both ships are operating under enhanced health protective measures to avoid infecting the crews with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The commanders said the crews have been following best practices and remain free of the disease. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters earlier this week that the U.S. carrier operations are seeking to “promote militarization” in the sea.

“It is completely out of ulterior motives that the U.S. flexes its muscles by purposely sending powerful military force to the relevant waters for large-scale exercises,” Mr. Zhao said. “The U.S. intends to drive a wedge between regional countries, promote militarization of the South China Sea and undermine peace and stability in the region.”’

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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