KEY POINTS

  • USS America is steaming into the disputed waters where a Chinese survey ship is operating 
  • The U.S. had previously demanded that China stop its "bullying behavior"  
  • China has increase maritime activities in disputed waters amid coronavirus pandemic

The USS America (LHA-6) is steaming into the South China Sea, where a Chinese survey ship along with its Chinese Coast Guard escorts are currently locked in a standoff with Malaysia.

Reports said the amphibious assault ship was carrying a combat element of at least five Marine F-35B Lightning II fighters as well as MV-22Bs tiltrotors and CH-53 helicopters. The USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was deployed around the waters earlier as a countervailing influence to Chinese actions, is now docked in Guam after coronavirus infections spread among its crew. That probably explains the decision to send the USS America in a show of solidarity with Malaysia and Vietnam, which have been alarmed by the latest aggressive actions by China.    

Previously, the U.S. had asked China to cease its "bullying behavior" in the sea. Several alarming reports on a series of provocative actions by Beijing inside what Malaysia claims as its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) have surfaced in recent days. Those actions probably prompted the U.S. warship to leap into action. 

USS_America - LHA-6 The amphibious assault ship USS America. Its complement of F-35B fighter aircraft can be seen. Photo: US Navy / Public domain

U.S. officials have leveled accusations at China for taking advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to slowly increase its maritime presence in the disputed area. China has made expansive claims in the South China Sea, in an area delineated by what is called the Nine-Dash Line. China has also built up artificial islands in the area and positioned radars and missiles on them in an effort to bolster its claims.

In the latest standoff, China's survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 has remained in place near where Malaysia is exploring for oil, along with 10 Chinese Coast Guard escorts. The fleet has been congregating around 200 nautical miles off the coast of East Malaysia for several days in waters claimed by Malaysia, China and Vietnam. The Malaysian Navy has confirmed the Chinese survey ship is in the area and operating "legally."

China's People's Liberation Army-Navy recently sailed a flotilla led by its aircraft carrier Liaoning into the Pacific Ocean on April 13, taking advantage of the power vacuum created as U.S. Navy carriers including the USS Theodore Roosevelt was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The actions were seen as broadcasting to the world the success of Chinese defense forces in containing the coronavirus, while the U.S. Navy struggled with the problem. 

The US Air Force and Navy responded with a runway formation of a dozen B-52 bombers and additional aircraft, though China's Defense Ministry has remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the entire matter. It has also yet to speak on whether or not the PLA has been continuing to deal with any additional cases of the novel coronavirus.