- The Navy's USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan are conducting exercises in the contested South China Sea
- Navy hasn't brought carriers together for such shows of force in the region since 2014 when the USS George Washington and USS Carl Vinson sailed there side by side
- But this year's drill comes amid heightened tension as US criticizes China over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of pandemic to push territorial claims in South China Sea
- China's foreign ministry said the US had deliberately sent its ships to the South China Sea to flex its muscles
- China officials have also accused the United States of trying to drive a wedge between countries in the region
- The US show of forces comes just days after Chinese state media said the country could destroy the US aircraft carriers at any moment with missiles in chilling threat
Two US Navy aircraft carriers have been pictured for the first time together on operations in the contested South China Sea just two days after Beijing threatened to blow them up.
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan came together along with their attendant strike groups, carrier-launched F-18 fighters and a B-52 bomber for military exercises.
The US Navy hasn't brought carriers together for such shows of force in the region since 2014 when the USS George WashingtBut this year's drill comes amid heightened tension in the region, as the US continues to criticize China over its novel coronavirus response, and after Donald Trump threatened the country with a trade war.
The US has accuses China of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
The vessels were in sight of Chinese naval vessels, which were spotted near the flotilla.
'They have seen us and we have seen them,' Rear Admiral James Kirk said in a telephone interview from the Nimitz, which has been conducting flight drills in the waterway with the Seventh Fleet carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, that began on July 4.
Images of the exercises, which were first released on Monday, show a B-52 bomber flying in formation with the two strike groups over the South China Sea.
The bomber flew from Louisiana on July 4 and participated in a maritime integration exercise with the two strike groups before landing at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
The US show of force comes after Chinese state media said the double US aircraft carrier deployment to the South China Sea is 'at their pleasure'.
In a tweet The Global Times also warned: 'China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 'aircraft carrier killer' #missiles.'
The state run Global Times said analysts noted that they could destroy the carriers at any moment with missiles in a chilling threat.
The paper wrote: 'The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), and any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA, which has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like the DF-21D and DF-26 'aircraft carrier killer' missiles.'
In response, the Navy Chief of Information shared on Twitter: 'And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated.'
China's foreign ministry said Monday the US had deliberately sent its ships to the South China Sea to flex its muscles and accused it of trying to drive a wedge between countries in the region.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the exercises were performed 'totally out of ulterior motives' and undermined stability in the area.
'Against such a backdrop, the US deliberately dispatched massive forces to conduct large-scale military exercises in the relevant waters of the South China Sea to flex its military muscle,' Zhao said at a daily briefing.
Sailors observe the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan from the USS Nimitz as the Nimitz and Ronald Reagan carrier strike groups steam in formation on Monday on and USS Carl Vinson sailed there side by side. The Pentagon, when it announced the dual carrier exercise, said it wanted to 'stand up for the right of all nations to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows', describing its 100,000-ton ships and the 90 or so aircraft they each carry as a 'symbol of resolve'.
Over the weekend, the Navy said the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan along with their accompanying vessels and aircraft conducted exercises 'designed to maximize air defense capabilities, and extend the reach of long-range precision maritime strikes from carrier-based aircraft in a rapidly evolving area of operations'.
About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which some $3trillion of trade passes a year. China routinely objects to any action by the US military in the region. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims.
China has sought to shore up its claim to the sea by building military bases on coral atolls, leading the U.S. to sail warships through the region in what it calls freedom of operation missions.
Contact with Chinese ships had been without incident, Kirk said.
'We have the expectation that we will always have interactions that are professional and safe,' he said. 'We are operating in some pretty congested waters, lots of maritime traffic of all sorts.'
Washington does not officially take a stand on the rival territorial claims in the region, but is closely allied with several of the claimants and insists that the waters and the airspace above be free to all countries.
Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff said of the exercises: 'The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability.'
Wikoff, commander of the strike group led by the Ronald Reagan, said the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China, which the Pentagon criticized this week as 'counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability'.
China dismissed the US criticism of its drills on Friday and suggested the United States was to blame for increasing tensions.
China announced last week it had scheduled five days of drills starting July 1 near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.
Vietnam and the Philippines have also criticized the Chinese drills, warning they could create tension in the region and impact Beijing's relationship with its neighbors.
The US accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbors who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
And while the US show of force is strong this week, in recent months, the Navy has taken some hard hits amid the pandemic.
The spread of the coronavirus aboard the carrier while on deployment in the Pacific in March exploded into one of the biggest military leadership crises of recent years.
More than 1,000 members of the crew eventually became infected, and one sailor died. The ship was sidelined for weeks at Guam but recently returned to duty.
The outbreak led to the firing of then captain Brett Crozier after he sent a letter to Navy leaders asking that most of the crew be taken ashore.
That letter was subsequently leaked to the press. Last month, after a two-month investigation, the Navy decided that Crozier would not return to the Roosevelt and not be eligible to captain another ship.
The COVID-19 outbreak on the Roosevelt was the most extensive and concentrated spread of the virus across the US military.
It eventually sent all of the 4,800 crew members ashore for weeks of quarantine, in a systematic progression that kept enough sailors on the ship to keep it secure and running.
More broadly, it put out of commission a massive warship vital to the Navy´s mission of countering China's power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Roosevelt spent weeks in port in Guam, as crew members rotated ashore for quarantine and isolation at the military base and in hotels around the island.
After about two weeks of training at sea, the carrier returned to operations at sea with a reduced crew on June 4.
Sailors have continued to fly back to the ship from Guam after they have recovered from the virus or completed two-weeks of quarantine.
Meanwhile, tensions between China have remained, partly due to President Donald Trump claiming that China may have spread the coronavirus intentionally.
Last month, the president made the claim in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. 'There's a chance it was intentional,' Trump said of the coronavirus spread that started in Wuhan and traveled around the globe earlier this year.
Without providing any evidence, the president speculated China may have had economic motivations letting the virus escape.
He said he didn't have intelligence reports to back up the claim, adding that there was a better chance it was Chinese incompetence or a mistake.
'I don't think they would do that,' Trump then said. 'But you never know. But it has had an impact.'
More recently, China demanded Washington stop 'oppressing Chinese companies' after US regulators declared telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE to be national security threats.
Last Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission blocked the Chinese vendors from receiving subsidies from a government fund, stepping up efforts to limit their access to the US market.
A foreign ministry spokesman accused Washington of 'abusing state power' to hurt Chinese companies 'without any evidence'.
'We once again urge the United States to stop abusing the concept of national security, deliberately discrediting China and unreasonably oppressing Chinese companies,' said the spokesman, Zhao Lijian.
US regulators say Huawei, the biggest global maker of telecom switching equipment, and its smaller Chinese rival ZTE Corp are controlled by the ruling Communist Party and say they might facilitate Chinese spying.
Huawei and ZTE deny the US accusations. Huawei's founder, Ren Zhengfei, said last year he would refuse official demands to reveal its customers' secrets despite a law that obliges Chinese companies to cooperate with intelligence agencies.
The FCC said money from its $8.3billion-a-year Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes equipment purchases for some carriers, may no longer be used to purchase Huawei or ZTE equipment.
The FCC 'has designated Huawei and ZTE as national security risks,' said the agency´s chairman, Ajit Pai, in a statement. He said the companies 'threaten our national security'.
The decision affects mostly small, rural carriers because major U.S. phone companies don´t use Chinese equipment.
The FCC had previously barred Huawei and ZTE from receiving other government subsidies. Congress enacted a law in March that will provide up to $1billion for carriers to replace Chinese-made equipment.