US aircraft carriers have sailed through the South China Sea as Washington accused Beijing of a "campaign of bullying" in the disputed region.
USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan sailed along with their strike groups into the sea in a major show of strength to China.
Pictures show the steel armada sailing through the region that has been the source of years of tensions between the US and China.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carriers launched F/A 18E Super Hornet fighter jets, and were joined by guided missile destroyers and cruisers in the exercise.
China is carrying out military drills of its own in the area, with a gathering of forces close to the contested Paracel Islands.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of a" completely unlawful" pursuit of territory in the South China Sea.
He condemned China for carrying out a campaign of "bullying" to control the disputed waters.
The South China Sea is considered to be potentially energy rich and a key global shipping lane.
China has long claimed an area known as the "nine-dash line" as its own.
It has been filling the region with its naval power and constructing artificial islands for military bases.
Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also contest China's claim over the sea.
China accused the US of "deliberately distorting facts and international law" over Mr Pompeo's latest comments as the feud ratchets up again.
Meanwhile, Britain announced that its new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth could also be sent to the Far East.
State-run newspaper The Global Times – often seen as the unfiltered voice of the Communist Party – also taunted that China has "carrier killer" missiles nearby as the US ships entered the region.
The US Navy directly responded to the jibe on Twitter, saying that its forces are "not intimidated".
“China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 “aircraft carrier killer” #missiles. South China Sea is fully within grasp of the #PLA; any US #aircraftcarrier movement in the region is at the pleasure of PLA,” a tweet from The Global Times said.
The US Navy’s chief of information replied: “And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea.
"#USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated.”
What is the dispute in the South China Sea about?
China lays claim to vast swathes of ocean and many islands – but some parts are also claimed by the likes of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan.
The dispute centres around legal claims to ocean areas and two island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys, which are thought to be abundant in natural resources.
Every year some £3.8 trillion of trade passes through the dispute area and the United States has been joined by Australia, the UK and France in sailing warships through it to assert freedom of navigation
China has engaged in a massive military build-up in the area, creating a network of artificial islands, which it uses to assert its territorial claim.
It claims that these are part of its national coastline but the United States and the Philippines say that doesn't apply to artificial islands.
China's claim to a 12 mile territorial limit around the islands is not internationally recognised.
Warships from the United States and China have been engaged in tense stand-offs which have threatened to escalate into conflict in the disputed seas.
In January 2019, China reacted with fury after the US sent a missile destroyer through the disputed waters in a direct challenge to Beijing.
China responded by scrambling warships and aircraft to intercept the ship, which sailed within a dozen miles of the increasingly-militarised Paracel Island chain.
And in the Chinese military newspaper the PLA Daily, Colonel Zhang Junshe warned the US to back down.
He said: "The US is not a country in the region and it is doing large-scale exercises in the South China Sea, far away from its homeland, yet at the same time it is unreasonably accusing China of doing normal military exercises at its doorstep.
"The double-standard remarks from the US cannot disguise its real motives, which is to push militarization and destabilize peace in the South China Sea."
He accused the US of having a "Cold War" attitude as relations between the two superpowers freeze over – with rows also raging over the coronavirus pandemic.
The US military drill is said to have been long planned and not considered a direct response to recent actions from China.
Speaking of the exercise, Rear Admiral George M. Wikoff said: "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, insisted the exercises were not a response to those being conducted by China.
The Pentagon has criticised the Beijing’s drills as "counter-productive to efforts at easing tensions and maintaining stability".
The United States accuses China of trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to use the sea's extensive oil and gas reserves.
Beijing claims it owns most of the disputed patch of ocean but other nations claim their own chunks under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The convention states that nations’ claims to the waters around them must be measured from land.
To thwart this, Beijing has been building man-made islands on top of coral reefs in the middle of the sea and packing them with weapons as they attempt to region into a fortress.
Mr Pompeo has previously accused China of using the Covid-19 pandemic to assert control of the region and flex its military muscles.
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