The U.S. Navy sent a small fleet of ships to the South China Sea in recent days as tensions continue to escalate over China’ territorial claims.
The Navy Times reported that the Pentagon has sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, two destroyers, two cruisers, and the 7th Fleet flagship to the South China Sea, according to military officials. The report came on the heels of Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s warning to China that the country refrain from "aggressive" actions in the South China Sea.
"China must not pursue militarization in the South China Sea," Carter said during a speech in San Francisco Tuesday. "Specific actions will have specific consequences."
When asked about those consequences, Carter mentioned that the U.S. had increased its deployments to the Asia-Pacific region and that it would spend $425 million on exercises and training with countries in the region over the next few years who feel threatened by China.
The cruisers Antietam and Mobile Bay are currently present in the South China Sea, the former conducting a "routine patrol" independent of the Stennis, officials said. The destroyers Chung-Hoon and Stockade are also in the region along with the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship for the 7th Fleet, which is en route to the Philippines.
Tensions have escalated in the disputed waters since reports last month that China deployed a surface-to-air-missile system to Woody Island, one of the Paracel Islands, which is claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The move led Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to tell lawmakers in February that China is "militarizing" the South China Sea.
U.S. warships have sailed near disputed islands in the region in recent months, asserting their freedom to navigate through international waters, actions that have sparked criticism from China.
In a statement reported Friday, a spokesperson for China’s legislature rejected claims that it was militarizing the South China Sea and instead accused the U.S. of doing so.
"The accusation [that China is militarizing the region] can lead to a miscalculation of the situation," Fu Ying, the spokesperson, said at a press briefing, according to the South China Morning Post. "If you take a look at the matter closely, it’s the U.S. sending the most advanced aircraft and military vessels to the South China Sea."
"The U.S. has made it clear that it will deploy 70 per cent of its navy to the Asia-Pacific region under its strategy of pivoting to Asia. The U.S. has stepped up military moves with its alliances and its military presence in the Asia -Pacific region. Isn’t this militarization?" she continued.