The US amphibious assault ship USS America arrives at Sattahip Naval Base in Chonburi, Thailand, ahead of the joint 'Cobra Gold' military exercise on February 22, 2020. Photo: AFP / Handout / Royal Thai Navy

Nations, like sports teams, don’t always recognize when they might get knocked off their perch.

The USS America, a new amphibious assault ship, is now patrolling in the South China Sea with another US cruiser, a US destroyer and an Australian destroyer.

They are operating near where a Chinese research vessel backed by Chinese Coast Guard ships is in a standoff with Malaysian ships. The Malaysians object to the Chinese being inside their Exclusive Economic Zone, which China claims as its own, along with most of the South China Sea.   

Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of the America Expeditionary Strike Group, stated: “To bring this much combat capability together here in the South China Sea truly signals to our allies and partners in the region that we are deeply committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Maybe. But Washington’s demonstration of capability and commitment might also look like a temptation from Beijing’s vantage point.  

Australia’s welcome contribution aside, the US squadron now in the South China Sea is pretty much on its own. And three ships are just three ships.

One wonders how much backup they have? Perhaps a submarine or two nearby. But air support? The USS America has some F35s and helicopters, but it is no aircraft carrier.      

The nearest carriers are far away. The USS Theodore Roosevelt is in Guam owing to a coronavirus outbreak among the crew. And the USS Ronald Reagan carrier is in port in far way Japan.

U.S. Navy sailors move aircraft from an elevator into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 8, 2018. Picture taken April 8, 2018. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Michael Hogan/Handout via REUTERS.  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY
US Navy sailors move aircraft from an elevator into the hangar bay of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea April 8, 2018. Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Michael Hogan/Handout

Land-based air support? That is a stretch with the closest US air bases on Guam (nearly 2,000 miles away) and Okinawa (nearly 1,500 miles distant.)

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) simply has far more ships in the South China Sea and close by. Estimates for the region range from five to ten Chinese warships for each US Navy ship. And the oft-presumed superior American capability does not even things up.  

The Chinese might be thinking: “So that’s all you’ve got?” And the USS America’s commander might be feeling a little lonely.  

He would not be the first American naval commander to feel that way. In the 2000’s one such commander noted that his biggest fear was that he would be put so far forward with no support that China would not be deterred from “taking a shot.”  

And that was some years ago. Both China and its military are much stronger and less inhibited these days.   

Rhyming history?

Sending US ships into waters where they are outnumbered by capable Chinese naval forces fronting for an increasingly belligerent Beijing brings to mind some not-so-distant history.

In late 1941, Great Britain had its hands full with the Germans. Meanwhile, the Japanese were posturing aggressively in Southeast Asia. The UK government had to do something to show its power in Asia in hopes of deterring the Japanese from making a move.

So it sent the battleship HMS Prince of Wales along with an older cruiser, HMS Repulse, to Britain’s main Asian naval base in Singapore. The Prince of Wales was modern and powerful. US President Roosevelt and UK Prime Minister Churchill had even met aboard the battleship a few months earlier off Canada to work out the Atlantic Charter.  

Sending the ships to Singapore was considered a show of resolve, as well as a major addition to British military power in the region.

They arrived on December 2, 1941. Less than a week later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, and landed troops in northern Malaya and southern Thailand.  HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Repulse and several destroyers (Force Z) sailed up the east coast of Malaya hoping to pitch into the Japanese transport fleet that landed the invasion force.

The British had no air cover, though it might not have helped if they’d had it.

Force Z was spotted. Land-based Japanese bombers (operating out of Indochina) found and sank both HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. The attackers’ prowess at torpedo attacks surprised the British. The Japanese weren’t supposed to be that good.

The sinking of both ships was a huge psychological blow both in Singapore and in London. At great cost and suffering enormous misery, Britain (along with the Americans, the Australians and Empire forces) did retake its Asian colonies.

But the disaster that had befallen HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, followed by the fall of Singapore two months later, was the beginning of the end of British power in Asia.

So watching USS America in the South China Sea – and hearing American spokesmen declaring that it sends a powerful message – uncomfortably brings to mind Force Z in 1942.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a joint military exercise in the South China Sea in April 2018. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese President Xi Jinping can figure out which side has more ships, aircraft and missiles at hand. If Xi thinks the US is distracted or otherwise weak, well, who knows?

It is not a stretch to believe China understands that a single blow like the sinking of the USS America could have the same impact as the Japanese sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, especially given the number of body blows the coronavirus has dealt to America.

Xi might also think China could get away with it.

The US Navy now faces a serious mismatch in Asia. One watched it happen as China cranked out four warships for every American one made over the last decade – and China keeps building more. Meanwhile, US ship numbers have barely budged and the American shipbuilding effort has been unimpressive, to put the situation charitably.

Washington either gets things in order, or it should not be surprised if someday there’s a reprise of the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, but this time with American not British ships sinking into the sea.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.