A user of the social media site Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, has published a satellite image that appears to show U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, surrounded by at least seven Chinese warships.

Normally, U.S. carriers are escorted by other warships in a carrier battle group that will include guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, a supply ship and even a couple of submarines. This image shows that the USS Ronald Reagan was alone near the contested waters of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

A spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Naval Fleet, Commander Reann Mommsen, was asked if the move was meant to send a message to China. She responded that it was currently underway, “conducting routine operations.” She said in an email that “Her [being] underway is not in response to any specific events.”

China’s response was predictable as its Defense Ministry spokesperson, Colonel Ren Guoqiang said on Thursday that the carrier was in the South China Sea “to flex muscles and escalate regional militarization.”

Ren continued, “We are firmly opposed to that. We urge the U.S. side to respect the security concerns of countries in the region and make positive contributions to the peace and stability in the South China Sea. The Chinese military will earnestly perform its duties and missions and firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security.”

These are interesting times for China. They are under immense pressure to pull off a gala celebration on Tuesday, Oct. 1, to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party and the founding of the People’s Republic. A military parade in Beijing will showcase some of its most advanced and powerful weaponry in a display of the progress it has made in modernizing its military.

China is currently embroiled in several disputes with ASEAN countries over oil-rich waters in the South China Sea. They are dealing with pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong and are in a protracted trade war with the U.S. The presence of the USS Ronald Reagan in the waterway could be interpreted as a U.S. attempt to throw cold water on the celebrations.

Washington is not happy that Beijing has constructed man-made islands in South China Sea hotspots, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. does not have any claims in the South China Sea but has committed to it being a “free and open Indo-Pacific” along with Japan. China claims the man-made islands are for defense purposes only.

Experts and analysts will be sure to watch Tuesday’s parade in Beijing to examine China’s cutting-edge anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles capable of sinking U.S. carriers and striking American bases in Japan.

 USS Ronald Reagan
In this aerial image, the USS Ronald Reagan at the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, Japan, Dec. 4, 2017. GettyImages/The Asahi Shimbun
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