Beijing sends aircraft carrier group to disputed South China Sea, vows to ‘uphold national sovereignty & security’

China has dispatched an aircraft carrier strike group into the disputed South China Sea for “routine” drills. The deployment comes shortly after another Chinese carrier group left the troubled region.

The group, led by the country’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, is to take part in “routine” training scheduled in its annual work plan, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy said in a statement on Sunday.

“It is completely legitimate and beneficial in improving the country’s ability to uphold national sovereignty and security,” a spokesman for the navy, Gao Xiucheng, has said.

The Shandong is the newer of two currently operational Chinese aircraft carriers. Launched in 2017, it entered service in late 2019. The deployment of the carrier strike group is its first major exercise this year.

The deployment comes shortly after another Chinese carrier group, led by the Liaoning aircraft carrier, left the region. The group held exercises in both the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

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On Thursday, China’s military revealed that the group has been pestered by a US Navy destroyer, USS Mustin, for some three weeks. The ship conducted “persistent close-range reconnaissance” and “severely disrupted” their exercises, it said, describing its conduct as “very vile in nature.” According to Beijing, the activities of the USS Mustin had threatened the “vessels and crew” of the strike group, and a formal diplomatic complaint has been launched.

The highly contested region has seen a lot of foreign military activity this year, with US aircraft carriers and other vessels visiting it several times already. In mid-April, the US also held joint two-week-long drills with the Philippines as part of Exercise Balikatan. They took place in the South China Sea near the Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago, as well as around the contested Scarborough Shoal.

Washington has been very active in the South China Sea in the past few years, repeatedly sending aerial and naval missions there. According to the US, such activities are needed to uphold the so-called “freedom of navigation” principle in the region. However, these endeavors have repeatedly resulted in run-ins with the Chinese military. Beijing opposes the missions, insisting they only create further tensions in the disputed waters.

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The resource-rich South China Sea is the subject of overlapping maritime and territorial claims by multiple nations, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, as Beijing has claimed almost the entire sea for itself. The region is also an important waterway, with multiple trade routes and trillions of dollars’ worth of goods flowing through it each year.

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