WASHINGTON — Two American aircraft carriers sailed to the South China Sea on Saturday for what Navy officials described as a freedom-of-navigation operation while China’s military conducts exercises nearby.
The carriers — the Ronald Reagan and the Nimitz — deployed “in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” according to a statement by the Navy’s Seventh Fleet. It said that the ships, which were accompanied by warships and aircraft, were conducting exercises to improve air defense and long-range missile strikes in “a rapidly evolving area of operations.”
Beijing has staked claim to much of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which one-third of global shipping flows, over the objections of other regional powers and an international tribunal that has rejected China’s assertions.
The deployment of an American aircraft carrier and its strike force is often used as a signal to deter adversaries. Deploying two at once is recognized as a significant show of force; in 2016, the then Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter toured two aircraft carriers that were cruising through the South China Sea as a reminder to Beijing of the United States’ commitment to allies in the region.