An aircraft carrier group enters operations in the South China Sea

(CNN) – The US Navy announced that a US aircraft carrier strike group began operating in the South China Sea on Thursday, amid escalating tensions with Beijing, which claims much of the waters as its sovereign territory.

A defense official told CNN, which consists of an aircraft carrier, a guided-missile cruiser and three guided-missile destroyers, that two Chinese ships are already tracking the US group.

The USS Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, which has lethal and non-lethal capabilities “from space to sea, in all axes and in all areas,” according to its commander, entered the South China Sea for the first time as part of the current state of the art. Designation.

This deployment comes at a time when the US military is strengthening its presence in the region with the aim of deterring China, which is rapidly modernizing and expanding its military and nuclear capabilities.

This week, the United States and Japan announced an enhanced presence of US Marines in Okinawa, who will have advanced intelligence capabilities and anti-ship capabilities. The two allies have also announced a series of initiatives aimed at bringing their militaries closer together in the face of what they see as China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

“We share Japan’s common vision of preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific, and everything we do is moving in that direction,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday. their Japanese counterparts in Washington.

Three weeks ago, a Chinese J-11 fighter intercepted a US RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea in what the US called an “unsafe maneuver”. The RC-135 Rivet Joint was forced into an evasive maneuver, according to the US, when the Chinese aircraft came within 6 meters of the larger, slower reconnaissance aircraft.

The People’s Liberation Army responded with its own version of the situation, claiming that it was the US aircraft that “suddenly changed its flight attitude” with a “dangerous approach maneuver”, although Chinese military video showed nothing like it.

The meeting highlighted tensions ingrained in the South China Sea, where Beijing has used its militarized artificial islands to press for acceptance of sovereignty not recognized by the United States or its allies.

The Chinese navy closely monitors US warships operating in the South China Sea, at times even claiming to have kicked off US ships after they left the disputed waters.

In November, China claimed it forced the USS Chancellorsville to leave the South China Sea after it “illegally entered” the waters without Beijing’s approval, proving that “the US is a real source of security risks” in the region.

The United States responded sharply, calling the Chinese version “false” and “the latest in a long line of actions (by the People’s Republic of China) to misrepresent lawful U.S. naval operations and enforce its own excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors”.

The US Navy said the US guided missile cruiser was operating in the South China Sea as part of a freedom of navigation operation under international law.

The United States declared at the time that “all nations, large and small, shall be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.”

— Haley Pritzky contributed to this report.

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