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

MANILA – While China may have recently stolen a Covid-19 march in the contested South China Sea, the United States is pushing back with a countervailing show of force to underscore its commitment to the maritime region’s security.

In recent weeks, the US has stepped up its naval exercises in the disputed maritime area, including through joint exercises between the US Air Force and Marines in the South China Sea as well as integrated surface vessels and submarine war games in the adjoining Philippine Sea. 

In late April, the Pentagon deployed the USS Bunker Hill, the USS America and USS Barry warships to the South China Sea, an exceptional show of force, according to strategic analysts. They were accompanied by the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Parramatta frigate.

That was followed by multiple muscular deployments in recent weeks, part of what Pentagon planners say is a new integrated and flexible strategy, one that is clearly aimed at checking China’s expansionist ambitions in the waterway.

The US upped the ante on May 15 by deploying the USS Rafael Peralta Arleigh-Burke-class destroyer some 116 nautical miles off China’s coast near Shanghai, the second US destroyer to be seen in the more northernly Yellow Sea in less than a month. Significantly, the ships are geared for anti-aircraft and strike operations.

The US response reflects a sense of urgency at the Pentagon after China earlier leveraged the Covid-19 crisis to intensify its militarization of various disputed land features while the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carriers were grounded at their respective ports in Japan and Guam with infections among their crews.

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt carry meals for sailors in Guam on April 8, 2020. Photo: US Navy handout

Most recently, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command deployed an Y-8 aircraft for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) patrol mission to the Fiery Cross situated near the Philippines.

China has also recently positioned its KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system on the disputed island in the Spratlys, which has served as the command and control center of Chinese operations in the area.

“[I]t is within China’s scope of sovereignty that it enhances construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea and deploys defensive weapons in accordance with China’s national defense needs,” Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute, recently told the state-affiliated Global Times.

That’s jangling nerves among smaller Southeast Asian claimant states, including normally quiet Malaysia. That’s because Chinese ships have for months hounded a Malaysian oil exploration vessel operating with its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a stand-off in which the US intervened last month by sending warships.

China’s vessel left the area on May 15.

In an unusual statement for Malaysia’s apolitical monarchy, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Re’Ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah said in parliament on May 18 that “increased activities by big powers in the South China Sea recently needs to be paid attention to.”  

Despite the virus-caused suspension of multilateral exercises and foreign deployments due to Covid-19, the US Navy conducted drills in the Philippine Sea from May 2-8 which focused on reconnaissance and surveillance exercises as well as surface, subsurface and amphibious operations.

The US show of force nominally aimed to enhance integrated response and interoperability among its surface and submarine forces but also clearly meant to send a muscular signal to China and reassure regional allies.

Chinese PLA naval soldiers on the march in a file photo. Image: Facebook

According to a statement by the US Navy’s 7th fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, the aim of the exercises was to “develop warfighting concepts, improve maritime lethality, and enable real-world proficiency and readiness,” it said last week.

Vice Admiral Bill Merz, the 7th Fleet’s commander, defended the US’ operations, stating they are part of “[r]outine presence operations”, which “reaffirms the US will continue to fly and sail freely, in accordance with international law and maritime norms, regardless of excessive claims or current events.”

“The US supports the efforts of our allies and partners in the lawful pursuit of their economic interests,” the US commander added.

At the same time, the US Navy has recently stepped up the deployment of warships to the South China Sea in rapid succcession.

Earlier this month, the US Navy sent Littoral Combat Ships USS Montgomery (LCS-8), USNS Cesar Chavez (T-AKE-14) and USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), the latter of which is armed with 100 nautical-mile-range missiles.

In late April, the USS Barry guided-missile destroyer sailed near the Paracel islands in a freedom of navigation operation. That was followed by the deployment of the guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, which conducted a similar operation in the contested Spratly islands.

Source: Facebook

Moreover, on April 30, the US Air Force deployed two B-1B bombers for sorties over the South China Sea as part of its new “dynamic force employment model”, a shift which apparently will replace permanent aerial missions in favor of more unpredictable missions in the disputed areas.

“The versatility and flexibility of Independence-variant littoral combat ships rotationally deployed to Southeast Asia is a game changer,” claimed Rear Admiral Fred Kacher, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7 on May 13.

“There is no better signal of our support for a free and open Indo-Pacific than positive and persistent US naval engagement in this region,” he added.

Crucially the US Navy is not only increasing the frequency of warship deployments to the area, but also their coverage, with commanders and Pentagon outlets regularly publicizing the events and presenting them as a sign of its sustained commitment to the region’s security.

A US naval vessel in the South China Sea in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

That was seen in the US Defense Department’s repeated publicizing of air-ground operations by the Marine Corps 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit from the amphibious assault ship USS America during a mid-April mission in the South China Sea. 

“It looks to me that the [US] Navy’s efforts to highlight these operations has, in fact, picked up a bit,” Retired Navy Commander Bryan McGrath told Stars and Stripes magazine.

“There is little doubt, however, that the pace of US Navy operations in China’s near abroad has picked up in the Trump administration as part of its overall signaling campaign to China.”