This week American warships, which were joined by an Australian Navy vessel, took part in a drill in the South China Sea as tensions rise again between China, Malaysia, and Vietnam over the disputed waters. The USS America (LHA-6), an amphibious assault ship, which operates with at least five Marine F-35B Lightning II fighters as well as MV-22Bs tiltrotors and CH-53 helicopters as part of a typical Maine air combat element, remains the most significant operational naval asset in the region as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) remains in Guam while its crew recovers from the coronavirus.
The New York Times reported that USS America, joined by the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) and Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52), entered the contested waters off Malaysia, as Chinese government survey ship Haiyang Dishi 8 has been "tailing" a Malaysian state oil company ship that is carrying out exploratory drilling. Despite working to control the spread of the coronavirus, which originated in China last year, Beijing has not reduced its activities in the strategic waterway throughout which one-third of global shipping flows.
Military analysts have said Chinese assertiveness has only intensified.
"It's a quite deliberate Chinese strategy to try to maximize what they perceive as being a moment of distraction and the reduced capability of the United States to pressure neighbors," Peter Jennings, a former Australian defense official and current executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told The New York Times on Monday.
The three American warships were joined this week by the Australian frigate HMS Parramatta to counter-movements by the Haiyang Dizhi 8, which was accompanied by a Chinese coastguard vessel.
"During the passage exercises, the ships honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment-at-sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills," the Australian defence department said in a statement to Reuters.
The U.S. Navy is also operating two Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), USS Montgomery (LCS-8) and USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10) in the South China Sea, where such standoffs have almost become routine.
Earlier this month, the Vietnamese accused a Chinese patrol ship of ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, and last month China opened two new research stations on artificial reefs it had build on waters claimed by the Philippines and other nations in the region. Those reefs are equipped with defense silos and military-grade runways. However, the actual ability to use those artificial reefs as viable military bases is questionable due to the reported shoddy construction and climate change that is allowing the ocean to slowly sink the unstable islands.
The United States has also accused Beijing of increasing its presence in the South China Sea as other nations in the region are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. At the same time, China has also been donating medical aid to South-east Asian countries to help battle the coronavirus. A team of Chinese medical experts even arrived in Malaysia this week to help address the more than 5,400 cases of the infection.
In addition, despite this rattling of sabers, Malaysia and China retain strong economic relations, and Malaysia has even ordered four 68-meter Keris-class Littoral Mission Ships (LMS) from China. The first of its class was delivered in January and the second vessel has been delayed due to coronavirus, while the remaining two – to be built in Wuhan – could be delayed beyond next year's scheduled delivery date.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.