On April 21, 2020, the United States Navy announced that the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), and guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG-52) were traveling to the South China Sea, "in support of security and stability in the Indo-pacific region." It is believed the Expeditionary Strike Group will attempt to intercept a Chinese government survey ship and its Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) escorts after they entered contested waters.
On April 17, 2020, the Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8, four CCG vessels, and nine maritime militia ships entered into Malaysia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) without permission from the Malaysian government. The standoff quickly escalated when the small armada began observing the drillship West Capella, a UK flagged ship operating under contract from Malaysia's state oil company, PETRONAS, as it conducted exploration of the area.
The original incident led to a warning from the United States in the form of a press release from the Department of State, which decried China for, "repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states." Later, the State Department recommended the People's Republic of China stop its aggressive maneuvering, "In this instance, China should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity."
Apparently, the warning was not heeded by China, and the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts continue to patrol and observe Malaysian oil platforms in the South China Sea.
The US decision to send an Expeditionary Strike Group comes at a time of high tensions in the Western Pacific. On April 12, 2020, the People's Republic of China directed the aircraft carrier Liaoning (辽宁) and its escorts towards the Republic of China, otherwise known as Taiwan. The Carrier Battle Group, composed of the carrier, two guided missile destroyers, two multi-role warships, and one supply ship, steamed through the 155 mile wide Miyako Strait and past Taiwan.
Due to COVID-19, the Liaong is now the only aircraft carrier operating in the Western Pacific. The only comparable American naval asset able to project air power in the region is the USS America with its small compliment of F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters and escorts.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.