Navy deploys TWO warships to South China Sea amid sabre-rattling standoff between Malaysia and China


Two U.S. warships are operating in the South China Sea, the Navy said on Tuesday, with three regional security sources saying they were near an area of a standoff between China and Malaysia.

The Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship, was spotted last week conducting a survey close to an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas, months after it undertook a similar patrol off Vietnam.

The incident prompted the United States to call on China to stop its ‘bullying behavior’ in the disputed waters, citing concern over Beijing’s provocative actions towards offshore oil and gas developments there.

USS America, an amphibious assault ship has been deployed and is operating in the South China Sea

An MV-22B Osprey prepares to land on amphibious assault ship USS America pictured earlier this week

An MV-22B Osprey prepares to land on amphibious assault ship USS America pictured earlier this week 

Haiyang Dizhi 8 has persisted with a number of patrols close to Malaysian oil platforms in the South China Sea this week, namely the West Capella drillship, which sparked territory contentions between China and Malaysia when it began exploration activities in October

Haiyang Dizhi 8 has persisted with a number of patrols close to Malaysian oil platforms in the South China Sea this week, namely the West Capella drillship, which sparked territory contentions between China and Malaysia when it began exploration activities in October

President Xi Jinping's is desperate to boost his prestige at home as Beijing tackles mounting international criticism over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a slowing economy and rising tensions with Washington

President Xi Jinping’s is desperate to boost his prestige at home as Beijing tackles mounting international criticism over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a slowing economy and rising tensions with Washington

The U.S. State Department has said China was taking advantage of the region’s focus on the coronavirus pandemic to ‘coerce its neighbors’.

The USS America amphibious assault ship and the USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, have been deployed and were operating in the South China Sea, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command spokeswoman Nicole Schwegman said on Tuesday.

‘Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working … to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific,’ Schwegman said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

‘The U.S. supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.’

Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group, told Reuters that his forces had interacted with Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea this week.

‘All our interactions continue to be safe and professional with them,’ Kacher said in a telephone interview from the USS America.

Schwegman did not state the exact location of the warships but security sources said they were close to the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and the Petronas-operated West Capella drillship. The sources declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill has also been deployed and is operating in the South China Sea

The guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill has also been deployed and is operating in the South China Sea

West Capella, which is under contract to Malaysian oil company Petronas, has triggered a flurry of patrols from China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships, Vietnamese maritime militia ships and ships from the Royal Malaysian Navy since its commission six months ago

West Capella, which is under contract to Malaysian oil company Petronas, has triggered a flurry of patrols from China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships, Vietnamese maritime militia ships and ships from the Royal Malaysian Navy since its commission six months ago

The area is near waters claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia as well by China, through its sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea within its U-shaped ‘nine-dash line’ that is not recognized by its neighbors or most of the world.

China has denied reports of a stand-off, saying that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting normal activities.

‘The ‘confrontation’  at sea you mention did not happen,’ the foreign ministry said in a faxed response to Reuters’ questions on Monday.

The Chinese survey vessel’s moves this month come as Beijing ramps up coronavirus diplomacy, donating large supplies of medical equipment and aid to Southeast Asian countries.

A team of Chinese medical experts arrived this week in Malaysia, which has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus infections. 

Graphics tracking the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship operating unimpeded in Malaysian waters, show the Chinese ship passed by an oil rig at least four times in 'intimidating' behavior

Graphics tracking the Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship operating unimpeded in Malaysian waters, show the Chinese ship passed by an oil rig at least four times in ‘intimidating’ behavior

The United States has accused China of taking advantage of the distraction of the pandemic and becoming increasingly assertive in the region as the coronavirus crisis eases on the mainland while raging elsewhere in the world. 

On Sunday, Vietnam protested after China said it had established two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands in the disputed waters.  

The U.S. State Department said China was taking advantage of the region’s focus on the pandemic to ‘coerce its neighbors’ with a crackdown in Hong Kong and saber-rattling around Taiwan and in the South China Sea.

In a significant strike against democracy activists in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, police in the city arrested 15 people on Saturday, just days after a senior Beijing official called for the local government to introduce national security legislation ‘as soon as possible.’

Hong Kong has reduced growth of confirmed COVID-19 cases to single digits in recent days, but city authorities say they are not taking any risks. Chief executive Carrie Lam said social distancing measures and some business restrictions would continue for another two weeks

Hong Kong has reduced growth of confirmed COVID-19 cases to single digits in recent days, but city authorities say they are not taking any risks. Chief executive Carrie Lam said social distancing measures and some business restrictions would continue for another two weeks

In a significant strike against democracy activists in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, police in the city arrested 15 people on Saturday. Pictured, Hong Kong residents pictured on Saturday

In a significant strike against democracy activists in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, police in the city arrested 15 people on Saturday. Pictured, Hong Kong residents pictured on Saturday

The arrests drew a strong rebuke from the United States and Britain.

China has also been flying regular fighter patrols near Chinese-claimed Taiwan, to the island’s anger, and has sent a survey ship flanked by coast guard and other vessels into the South China Sea, prompting the United States to accuse Beijing of ‘bullying behavior.’

‘Now that the domestic coronavirus outbreak has been stabilized, China wants to send an important signal to the world that its military and foreign affairs, previously put on hold, are back on track,’ said Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor of international politics at Beijing’s Renmin University.

China describes Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea as its most sensitive territorial issues.

The most dramatic actions have been close to Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own. Beijing has been angered by moves by President Tsai Ing-wen during the outbreak to assert the island’s separate identity from China.

Liaoning and accompanying warships passed first through the Miyako Strait over the weekend. Pictured here, the Liaoning sailing with a flotilla of Chinese ships in April 2018

Liaoning and accompanying warships passed first through the Miyako Strait over the weekend. Pictured here, the Liaoning sailing with a flotilla of Chinese ships in April 2018

Job applicants are seen at a job fair in Wuhan,China. The pandemic's first cases were reported in late December in the city. China has reported almost 83,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths

Job applicants are seen at a job fair in Wuhan,China. The pandemic’s first cases were reported in late December in the city. China has reported almost 83,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths

An on-site job fair was held in Wuhan on Tuesday with strict epidemic prevention measures. Officials insist the situation there is now largely under control

An on-site job fair was held in Wuhan on Tuesday with strict epidemic prevention measures. Officials insist the situation there is now largely under control

In the latest uptick in tensions, China’s navy this month sailed a battle group, led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, around Taiwan’s east coast and has mounted regular air force drills near the island.

Lo Chih-cheng, a senior legislator with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said China was showing that its military power had not been affected by the virus and that things had returned to normal.

‘The other aspect is of course to test whether the combat strength of the U.S. military has been reduced due to the impact of the epidemic,’ he said.

The pandemic’s first cases were reported in late December in China’s Wuhan city. China has reported almost 83,000 cases and more than 4,600 deaths, but the situation there is now largely under control.

The United States has by far the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 780,000 infections and over 42,300 deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

The USS Roosevelt (pictured in 2017) and USS Ronald Reagan are the only two US carriers in the Pacific, but both have been forced to dock due to confirmed coronavirus cases onboard, which effectively gives China free range in the region

The USS Roosevelt (pictured in 2017) and USS Ronald Reagan are the only two US carriers in the Pacific, but both have been forced to dock due to confirmed coronavirus cases onboard, which effectively gives China free range in the region

With USS Theodore Roosevelt temporarily sidelined in Guam after suffering a high-profile coronavirus outbreak on board, USS America is currently the most significant operational naval asset the US Navy has in the region

With USS Theodore Roosevelt temporarily sidelined in Guam after suffering a high-profile coronavirus outbreak on board, USS America is currently the most significant operational naval asset the US Navy has in the region

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus has expressed serious concern about recent Chinese moves

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus has expressed serious concern about recent Chinese moves

The United States has berthed one of its carriers in the region, the Theodore Roosevelt, in Guam, with nearly 14% of the crew testing positive for the coronavirus.

China’s Foreign Ministry said in a short statement: ‘No matter when or where, China resolutely safeguards its sovereignty, security and development interests.’ China’s Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus expressed serious concern about recent Chinese moves.

‘The United States strongly opposes PRC efforts to take advantage of the region’s focus on addressing the COVID pandemic in order to coerce its neighbors in the region. We call for the PRC to live up to its international obligations,’ she said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. 

The U.S. military has also carried out its own South China Sea drills, and sailed through the sensitive Taiwan Strait, most recently this month on the same day that Chinese fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers drilled in waters close to the island.

USS America has steamed to intercept a Chinese government survey ship and several of its China Coast Guard escorts after they ventured into contested waters off the coast of Malaysia, amid an international maritime dispute between the two countries

USS America has steamed to intercept a Chinese government survey ship and several of its China Coast Guard escorts after they ventured into contested waters off the coast of Malaysia, amid an international maritime dispute between the two countries

Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group, told Reuters that his forces had interacted with Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea this week.

‘All our interactions continue to be safe and professional with them,’ Kacher said in a telephone interview from the USS America, an amphibious assault ship.

China’s navy says the Liaoning was heading for the South China Sea as part of routine exercise plans, and that it would continue with such drills to ‘speed up the increase of the combat capability of the carrier group system.’

Beijing this month denounced criticism from the United States of its recent South China Sea moves, saying Washington had been using the South China Sea issue to smear China.

F-35B Lightning II

CH-53 helicopter

USS America  is bristling with fleet of stealth aircraft, including  Marine F-35B Lightning II jets (left), MV-22Bs tiltrotors and CH-53 helicopters (right) onboard

Members of the People's Liberation Army navy are seen on board China's aircraft carrier Liaoning as it sails into Hong Kong, China, in July 2017

Members of the People’s Liberation Army navy are seen on board China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning as it sails into Hong Kong, China, in July 2017 

China claims much of the resource-rich South China Sea, also a major trade route. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei all have competing claims with China.

‘China’s recent activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere in Asia have shown its intention to further militarize the area,’ said Ha Hoang Hop at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Former Philippines foreign minister Albert Del Rosario said on Sunday that China ‘has been relentless in exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to pursue its illegal and expansive claims in the South China Sea.’

A senior Taiwan official told Reuters that its interpretation was that Beijing’s aggressiveness was due to President Xi Jinping’s need to boost his prestige at home as Beijing tackles mounting international criticism over the handling of the pandemic, a slowing economy and rising tensions with Washington.

‘If the Communists need a conflict, Taiwan will be their top choice,’ said the official, who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. ‘But it is highly risky for Xi’s regime and we do not think they will rush into danger.’

POWER AND MIGHT: CHINA’S TWO AIRCRAFT CARRIERS

China has made drastic advancements in its military capabilities in recent years, and will boast the world’s biggest Navy by 2035, according to the US Naval Institute. 

The country already has two aircraft carriers, and is said to have plans to construct two more in the next few years. 

China’s government first purchased a partially completed carrier from Ukraine in 1998, and spent more than a decade completely refurbishing it. 

The carrier – named Liaoning – is docked at Dalian Naval Base in the country’s northeast. It entered into service in 2012. 

Like the Liaoning, the Shandong uses a ski-jump style ramp to launch its planes (pictured)

Like the Liaoning, the Shandong uses a ski-jump style ramp to launch its planes (pictured)

China then funneled a reported $9billion into its second aircraft carrier – Shandong. The 65,000 ton warship can hold up to 6,000 crew, and is strategically based at Hainan Island, China’s southernmost point. 

The carrier only entered service this past December, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attended an official commissioning ceremony. 

Like the Liaoning, the Shandong uses a ski-jump style ramp to launch its planes.

Last month, South China Morning Post reported that Naval officials had tightened restrictions on the ship amid fears that coronavirus could spread among sailors. Those embarking and disembarking underwent medical screenings. 

According to the newspaper, crew members were prohibited from going ashore unless they had permission from  Captain Lai Yijun or Political Commissar Pang Jianhong. 

The ship was also subject to increased cleaning measures, with ‘each and every corner of the vessel disinfected’.

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