Watch out, China: US and Australia send warships into disputed South China Sea
The US Navy initially deployed two vessels, the USS America amphibious assault ship and the USS Bunker Hill guided missile cruiser, close to where the Chinese government survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 is operating. The ships were today joined by Australia’s HMAS Parramatta and a third US vessel, the destroyer USS Barry.
The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests
Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman
The Australian defence department said its warship had been sent to the disputed region to take part in joint drills with the US Navy.
A spokesman said: “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 US military presence appears to signal Washington’s support for other countries in the region amid featrs China is trying to take advantage of the chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Lieutenant Commander Nicole Schwegman, spokeswoman for US Indo-Pacific Command, said: “Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working with our allies and partners to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific.
“The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.”
Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said there are numerous possible reasons for the US to have sent warships to the area of the survey ship but it is unlikely Malaysia asked Washington to intervene.
He said: “I don’t think the United States has any intention to directly engage on behalf of Malaysia, especially because Malaysia may not have asked for assistance and is not a US treaty ally.
“But it is useful for US forces to be there to help monitor Chinese activities and show other claimants that China is not the only outside military capable of operating in the South China Sea.”
Data from ship-tracking website Marine Traffic showed the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was 202 miles off the Malaysian coast, within its exclusive economic zone,
The ship, accompanied by an armed Chinese coastguard vessel, has been moving in a hash-shaped pattern consistent with a seismic survey for nearly a week.
The area is near waters claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia as well as China.
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea, within a U-shaped “nine-dash line” on its maps, which is not recognised by its neighbours.
Malaysia state oil firm Petronas, which is also carrying out exploratory work in the area, and the foreign ministry in Kuala Lumpur, have not commented.
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But the US has called on China to stop its “bullying behaviour” in the South China Sea.
Beijing has denied reports of a standoff, saying the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting normal activities.
Last year, Vietnamese vessels spent months shadowing the Haiyang Dizhi 8.
It appeared off Vietnam again last week, within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Vietnam said it was closely monitoring the situation.
The US has accused China of pushing its presence in the South China Sea while other claimants are pre-occupied with the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, China has been donating medical aid to Southeast Asian countries to help them tackle the virus, which emerged in central China late last year.
A team of Chinese medical experts arrived this week in Malaysia, which has reported more than 5,400 coronavirus infections.
On Sunday, Vietnam protested after China said it had established two administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands in the disputed waters. China has called Vietnam’s claims illegal.
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