Politics in the South China Sea is getting murkier with US coming in to stop China from raising claim over the contested waters. The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan warships were carrying out operations and exercises in the South China Sea “to support a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the navy said in a statement on Friday.

The deployment of the nuke powered aircraft carriers is seen as a major US offensive against Chinese plans to expand its control over the Asian seas and can give rise to nasty diplomatic spats or even limited military action between the super powers.

The US deployment comes after Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted military drills in the region, drawing sharp reactions from neighbouring states and Washington.

“The purpose is to show an unambiguous signal to our partners and allies that we are committed to regional security and stability,” Rear Admiral George M Wikoff commander of the strike group led by USS Ronald Reagan said.

China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year. Over the last decade, Beijing has gone ahead to build man-made islands and set up military installations including military-grade airfields in several areas.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, that comprise the 21 disputes that Beijing is embroiled in.

China’s PLA Navy had started the five-day military drills on July 1, prompting Vietnam to file its formal protest to the Chinese foreign ministry. China’s drills are being held near the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam and Philippines.

In its strongest statement yet, the Philippines has said the exercises are being held in waters claimed by Vietnam.

“Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory, then China is forewarned that it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate,” Philippines foreign ministry said in a statement, according to news agency AP. The Philippines has a defence cooperation pact with the US.

The US naval exercises come a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed solidarity with China’s neighbours. “The PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) military exercise in disputed waters of the South China Sea is highly provocative. We oppose Beijing’s unlawful claims. Period,” Pompeo tweeted on Friday.

Pompeo has been outspoken in his criticism of China’s expansionist approach, describing Beijing as a “rogue actor” for escalating tensions with India and other countries. Last month, he had underlined the degree to which the US is deploying its considerable military might with an almost single-minded determination to contain China.

Japan, which has raised its deployment around its Senkaku Islands that China eyes, has also been upset with Beijing over its practice of sending its ships to the Senkaku Islands.

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