China Warships Shadow U.S. and Allied Naval Groups in South China Sea

China appears to have deployed military vessels to shadow American and British aircraft carrier formations in the South China Sea ahead of an intensive six-nation exercise, analysis of satellite imagery revealed on Tuesday.

An image shared by Ho Chi Minh-based maritime observer Duan Dang showed elements of the U.S. Navy's Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group and the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group off the west coast of the Philippines on October 5.

The U.K. flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth was west of the Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan and the Philippines, while USS Carl Vinson was operating north of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by Manila but administered by Beijing, said Duan, who is the author of the newsletter South China Sea Brief.

Monitoring both carrier groups at a distance were "unidentified" warships, his satellite photo showed. The vessels likely belong to the People's Liberation Army Navy's South Sea Fleet, which operates in the South China Sea.

USS Carl Vinson and HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier strike groups in the South China Sea today.

— Duan Dang (@duandang) October 5, 2021

The Vietnamese observer noted upcoming maritime exercises in the next two weeks. The U.K.'s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that HMS Queen Elizabeth was scheduled to train with friendly ships and aircraft from the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. PLA Navy warships are expected to monitor the exercises throughout.

Before arriving in the South China Sea on Monday, U.S. and allied naval groups wrapped up two days of interoperability exercises in the western Pacific, in the seas east of Taiwan and southwest of Japan's Okinawa. Beijing appeared to perceive the drills as a challenge; it responded by flying dozens of military jets and nuclear-capable bombers near southwestern Taiwan.

Images shared by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) showed the addition of the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group among vessels from six nations taking part in the weekend's exercises, including the U.S., Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

On Tuesday, the JMSDF revealed a particular interoperability milestone reached on Sunday when it shared images of U.S. Marine Corps F-35B stealth fighters landing on and launching from Japanese helicopter carrier JS Izumo—the first fixed-wing aircraft to operate on a Japanese carrier since World War II.

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As the American and British carrier groups sailed into the South China Sea via the waters south of Taiwan on Monday, Chinese military flights in the Bashi Channel continued in alarming numbers, with 56 aircraft crossing into Taiwan's air defense identification zone by midnight.

In his newsletter published on Tuesday, Duan remarked: "In my opinion, the surge of military aircraft may signify how much Beijing had been irritated over the recent gathering of U.S. and U.K. carrier strike groups near Taiwan."

Duan said a similar response could be expected every time a U.S. aircraft carrier transits the Bashi Channel, which sits at the intersection between the western Pacific, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

Update 10/6/21, 5:40 a.m. ET: This article was updated to remove a reference to the movements of HNLMS Evertsen.