The Chinese maritime authorities said at the end of June that an expansion of the South China Sea around the Paracel Islands – called Xisha Islands in Chinese – would be prohibited for other ships during the first five days of July while Chinese military exercises were taking place there.
The Chinese government has had no immediate public reaction to the announcement by the two American airlines, but it is very unlikely that Beijing will buy the idea that the move was just a coincidence. A minor US Navy operation in the South China Sea in the past few days had already drawn trouble from China.
China claims many islands and outcrops and the surrounding waters in the South China Sea as territories, despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as from Taiwan. Beijing has regularly accused the United States of causing tensions through military operations at sea, while the United States and other countries view their operations as lawful and remind China not to restrict passage through the area.
“As a country outside of the region, the United States has used the” freedom of navigation “excuse to ship military-grade ships and planes to provoke the East and South China Sea,” said Lt. Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman China’s defense ministry said at a press conference in Beijing late last month. “This seriously harms regional peace and stability.”
The Ronald Reagan is usually based in Japan; The Nimitz reached the Asian coast on June 17 and also carried out joint exercises with another aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt. The Roosevelt returned to sea on June 4th. She had docked in Guam for weeks and quarantined her crew to deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus on board this year.
Chris Buckley contributed to the reporting.