The United States has further stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea, reportedly sending an amphibious assault vessel to the disputed waters amid heightened tensions in the region.
Satellite data showed that the USS Makin Island amphibious-ready group (ARG) travelled through the Strait of Malacca into the contentious waters from late on Wednesday until the early hours of Thursday, according to the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). The group included amphibious assault ship the USS Makin Island and the amphibious transport dock USS San Diego, the think tank said.
Sailors on the USS Makin Island were conducting “a live-fire training exercise”, the US Indo-Pacific Command tweeted on Thursday, along with a hashtag calling for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
This latest passage by a US amphibious assault ship comes at a time when both China and the US have sailed aircraft carriers into the South China Sea, with the US’ Theodore Roosevelt conducting exercises with Malaysia on Tuesday and Wednesday, and China’s Liaoning en route from the Miyako Strait off southwestern Japan to conduct “scheduled exercises” near Taiwan.
Analysts say the US naval presence in waters neighbouring China is a signal from US President Joe Biden’s administration to its allies in the region and to Beijing that it is committed to maintaining a military presence in the region to counter China. Beijing had hoped relations with Washington would improve after former US president Donald Trump left office, but there have not been noticeable changes in US military activities in the Indo-Pacific under Biden.
“Since China-US relations are relatively tense, the US is putting more of its military capacity near China,” said Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping. “Its transitioning to the South China Sea and western Pacific areas in particular is a normal situation.”
US destroyer the USS John McCain also passed through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, which the Chinese military’s eastern theatre command denounced for sending the “wrong signal” to Taiwan’s government.
The SCSPI also said that the USS Mustin guided-missile destroyer was operating in the East China Sea on Saturday.
In recent weeks, there have been escalating tensions in the contested South China Sea, not least over the Philippine government lodging a protest about a large number of Chinese vessels massed at Whitsun Reef, a feature in the Spratly Islands that is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but has other claimants including Beijing.
The increased presence of China’s coastguard near islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Japan, and Beijing’s increasing “grey zone” warfare tactics against Taiwan, are among the other points of contention.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the energy-rich South China Sea – disputed by neighbours such as the Philippines and Malaysia, and ruled by an international tribunal in 2016 to have no legal basis – and also claims the Diaoyu Islands that Japan claims as the Senkakus, and the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
The deepening dispute with the Philippines over Whitsun Reef in particular has escalated in recent days, with Manila issuing strongly worded statements opposing the presence of what it says is a maritime militia. Beijing has claimed its vessels there are fishing boats sheltering from bad weather, and has reiterated its claims to the reef.
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said it was not the first time a US amphibious-ready group had sailed through the South China Sea, but that it was significant given current tensions in the waters.
The Makin Island group was building on the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s activities in the South China Sea to “demonstrate the US’ security commitment to the region, not least its obligation towards the Philippine-US alliance”, Koh said.
Song said the maritime boundaries of the US Indo-Pacific Command’s three major fleets – the Third Fleet, Fifth Fleet and Seventh Fleet – had been blurred under Trump to increase their combat effectiveness. The USS Makin Island’s transit from the Indian Ocean, which falls under the Fifth Fleet, into the South China Sea, part of the Seventh Fleet’s domain, was a reflection of this, he said.
“Out of the Indo-Pacific Command, the Third Fleet’s actual combat capabilities are the strongest, so since they need to direct combat forces to the Indo-Pacific, their main goal is to continuously transfer the Third Fleet’s military forces into the Seventh Fleet and Fifth Fleet’s areas,” he said.
“I personally think that the USS Makin Island may travel to its home port in San Diego via the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean, and will need to carry out exercises while it is travelling.”
Military commentator Liang Guoliang said: “The USS Makin Island is going to show off the American navy’s muscle. They are going to tell the Chinese military that even though Beijing built three airstrips in the Spratly Islands that can accommodate all kinds of warplanes, the US navy has the world’s most powerful island-landing capability to deal with them.”
Additional reporting by Kinling Lo