The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group conducted a joint naval exercise close to the Chinese-controlled islands on Tuesday. The US navy said the vessels “conducted a multitude of exercises aimed at increasing interoperability between assets as well as command and control capabilities”.
The mission was the first dual-carrier operation to take place in the South China Sea since last July.
The presence of US forces in the contested waters also comes just days after the USS John S McCain destroyer sailed near to the Paracel Islands.
The US navy said the vessels were conducting a “freedom of navigation operation” in order to maintain peace in the region.
Most notably it was also the first time a US operation had taken place in the waterways since Joe Biden was inaugurated as US President.
Rear Admiral Jim Kirk, commander of the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, said: “We are committed to ensuring the lawful use of the sea that all nations enjoy under international law.”
Beijing hit back with and insisted it was ready to take action to protect the region.
China’s foreign ministry its forces were prepared to take the “necessary measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security”.
Last month, the US military said Chinese military flights over the South China Sea fit a pattern of destabilising and aggressive behaviour.
Beijing claims vast areas of the South China Sea up to the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Under international law, a large part of the territory comes under Vietnamese rule, but China argues it has historical sovereignty over most of the waterway.
The South China Sea is also a crucial strategic area, and a 2015 US Department of Defence report found an estimated £4trillion ($5.3trillion) worth of goods are shuttled through the waters every year.