Caption: An F/A-18E Super Hornet launches on the flight deck of the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) on July 16, 2022.

China announced a large-scale military exercise in the South China Sea as the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sails near the Spratly Islands and a U.S. destroyer conducted consecutive sail-throughs.

The Hainan Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) issued a navigation warning on Friday, saying that military drills would take place from Saturday to Wednesday in a large area overlapping the Paracel archipelago, contested by China, Taiwan and Vietnam but controlled entirely by China.

A navigation warning is a public advisory notice to mariners about changes to navigational aids and current marine activities or hazards such as military exercises.

According to the coordinates provided in the Hainan MSA warning, the planned drills cover an area of approximately 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) east of Hainan island, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) from Vietnam’s port city of Danang.

China often holds military exercises at short notice as a response to U.S. naval activities in disputed areas of the South China and East China Seas.

Last Wednesday, the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea on its first deployment there this year. The strike group is led by the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76).

It has been operating around the Spratly Islands at the same time as the U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Benfold conducted two consecutive freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, a rare event.

China labelled the U.S. FONOPs “trespasses.”

Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam hold territorial claims over the sea but the Chinese claim is by far the most expansive.

A C-2A Greyhound launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan on July 16, 2022. CREDIT: U.S. Navy

‘Provoking China’

Chinese state media called the latest U.S. naval activities “an escalated provocation” and Chinese analysts warned of “an unwanted conflict.”

Military expert Song Zhongping was quoted by the Global Times as saying that by operating in the South China Sea, the U.S. “wants to provoke China in its core interests, create crises and hype tensions with the strategic goal of containing China.”

On Sunday the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Beijing-based Chinese think-tank, detailed the USS Ronald Reagan’s movements since it departed Guam on July 1, saying the carrier will probably make a port call in Danang in central Vietnam. 

RFA reported on the plan earlier this month, citing Vietnamese sources close to the matter, however the U.S. Pacific Command declined to confirm it. 

There were talks about a similar planned visit by another aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, in May but it didn’t materialize.

The U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement that “carrier operations in the South China Sea are part of the U.S. Navy’s routine operations in the Indo-Pacific.”

“Our presence in the South China Sea demonstrates America’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Capt. Fred Goldhammer, commanding officer of USS Ronald Reagan, was quoted as saying.

The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), named after the 40th U.S. President, is a Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered supercarrier, homeported in Yokosuka, Japan.