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Sailing into a storm: Two US aircraft carriers conduct drills in the South China Sea just days after Beijing threatened to destroy the strike group as tensions rise in the hotly contested region (23 Pics)

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 Washington and USS Carl Vinson sailed there side by side. 
But 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 USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan (both pictured Monday) are conducting exercises in the contested South China Sea within sight of Chinese naval vessels spotted near the flotilla just a day after Beijing threatened to destroy the strike group
The USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan (both pictured Monday) are conducting exercises in the contested South China Sea within sight of Chinese naval vessels spotted near the flotilla just a day after Beijing threatened to destroy the strike group 
The US 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. The USS Ronald Reagan (front) and the USS Nimitz (rear) sail together in formation in the South China Sea on Monday
The US 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. The USS Ronald Reagan (front) and the USS Nimitz (rear) sail together in formation in the South China Sea on Monday 
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson, and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton steam in formation as part of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson, and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton steam in formation as part of the USS Nimitz carrier strike group
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.  
This year's drill with the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan comes amid heightened tension as the US continues to criticize China over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere
This year's drill with the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan comes amid heightened tension as the US continues to criticize China over its novel coronavirus response and accuses it of taking advantage of the pandemic to push territorial claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere
China's foreign ministry said 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
China's foreign ministry said 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
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'
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'
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.
The USS Nimitz  and USS Ronald Reagan strike groups conduct dual carrier operations in the South China Sea
The USS Nimitz  and USS Ronald Reagan strike groups conduct dual carrier operations in the South China Sea 
A B-52 bomber is seen flying out in front of the two strike groups during exercises over the South China Sea
A B-52 bomber is seen flying out in front of the two strike groups during exercises over the South China Sea
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
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 
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.'
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'
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'
The USS Nimitz is seen steaming alongside the Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on Monday
The USS Nimitz is seen steaming alongside the Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on Monday 
An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the Eagles of Strike Fighter Squadron 115 takes off from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan on Monday
An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the Eagles of Strike Fighter Squadron 115 takes off from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan on Monday 
This B-52 bomber from Louisiana took off from its home station on July 4th and participated in a maritime integration exercise with two aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea before landing at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam
This B-52 bomber from Louisiana took off from its home station on July 4th and participated in a maritime integration exercise with two aircraft carrier strike groups in the South China Sea before landing at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam
About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups. This B-52 bomber is seen after landing at the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam
About 12,000 sailors are on ships in the combined carrier strike groups. This B-52 bomber is seen after landing at the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam  
The B-52 bomber is seen in formation with two strike groups over the South China Sea
The B-52 bomber is seen in formation with two strike groups over the South China Sea 
This image shows the strike group flying in formation over the South China Sea during drills over the weekend
This image shows the strike group flying in formation over the South China Sea during drills over the weekend 
This image captured two aircraft from the strike groups flying over one of the aircraft carriers during exercises over the South China Sea
This image captured two aircraft from the strike groups flying over one of the aircraft carriers during exercises over the South China Sea  
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.
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 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
Chinese state media shared these images Saturday and said the double US aircraft carrier deployment to the South China Sea is 'at their pleasure'
Chinese state media shared these images Saturday and said the double US aircraft carrier deployment to the South China Sea is 'at their pleasure'
The state run Global Times said analysts noted that they could destroy the carriers at any moment with missiles in a chilling threat, posting these images
The state run Global Times said analysts noted that they could destroy the carriers at any moment with missiles in a chilling threat, posting these images 
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. 
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'
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'
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. 
President Donald Trump has also caused tensions between the two countries with claims that China may have spread the coronavirus intentionally
President Donald Trump has also caused tensions between the two countries with claims that China may have spread the coronavirus intentionally
More recently, China (the country's president, Xi Jinping is pictured) demanded Washington stop 'oppressing Chinese companies' after US regulators declared telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE to be national security threats
More recently, China (the country's president, Xi Jinping is pictured) demanded Washington stop 'oppressing Chinese companies' after US regulators declared telecom equipment suppliers Huawei and ZTE to be national security threats
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.

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