A US aircraft carrier and its strike group have returned to the South China Sea following a port call in Singapore, deploying in the disputed area as tensions with China grow over congressional speaker Nancy Pelosi’s probable visit to Taiwan.
Officials with the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet acknowledged the deployment of the USS Ronald Reagan to the critical commerce route but declined to comment on Pelosi’s travel, the speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
“USS Ronald Reagan and her strike group are underway, operating in the South China Sea following a successful port visit to Singapore,” Commander Hayley Sims told Reuters.
The Reagan, according to Sims, “is continuing normal, scheduled operations as part of her routine patrol in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
When pressed for reaction, China’s foreign ministry said that the Reagan’s voyage represented the US “flexing its muscles” in the South China Sea.
“It is clear from this for everyone to see who is the biggest threat to the South China Sea and the Asian region’s peace and stability,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing on Thursday.
The news of the carrier’s deployment comes as Beijing and Washington exchange diplomatic blows over Pelosi’s visit, which is apparently set to take place next month after being postponed earlier this year. Pelosi has not yet confirmed the trip.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that he had talked with Pelosi and provided her with a security assessment, but that any statements regarding a possible trip to Taiwan would have to come from her office.
Tensions over democratically-ruled Taiwan are anticipated to be mentioned during the sixth phone discussion between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which may happen as soon as Thursday.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said on Monday that China has conveyed harsh warnings to US authorities regarding Pelosi’s probable travel to Taiwan. Beijing believes Taiwan to be part of its territory and has never refrained from using force to seize control of the island.
The Reagan strike group had been operating in the South China Sea earlier this month before arriving in Singapore for a five-day rest break over the weekend.
Based on prior activities and the new tensions, Singapore-based security expert Ian Storey expects Chinese warships to trail the strike group.
“Most of the time, such conversations are safe and professional, but there is always the possibility of them getting too near and sparking a fight, according to Storey of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
US authorities accused China on Tuesday of increasing “provocations” against rival claims in the South China Sea, saying its “aggressive and irresponsible behavior” meant it was only a matter of time until a major incident or disaster occurred.