U.S. Naval Standoff With China Fails to Reassure Regional Allies

The tense encounter around a Malaysian drillship drew in five navies.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province, on April 23, 2019.
The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy aircraft carrier Liaoning participates in a naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province, on April 23, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images

On the face of it, the recent standoff along Malaysia’s Borneo coast was a robust response by the U.S. Navy to some cynically timed Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, offering reassurance to wavering Southeast Asian countries that Washington still has their back in the midst of a global pandemic. Unfortunately, few in the region are likely to view it that way.

For several days, starting on April 20, the USS America—a small carrier equipped with a handful of F-35 jets, helicopters, and an embarked force of U.S. Marines—patrolled, with its two escorts USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry, in close proximity to a Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, and its accompanying screen of coast guard vessels and fishing boats, the latter widely assumed to be part of China’s maritime militia. Two Chinese navy destroyers and a frigate subsequently arrived on the scene.

The target of China’s motley but highly coordinated maritime force was the West Capella, a drillship working under charter to Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned energy company. It has been operating near the outer edge of Malaysia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), off the state of Sarawak, since late 2019. Beijing’s apparent aim was to intimidate and disrupt Malaysia’s exploration activity, coercing it and other Southeast Asian littoral states into accepting joint development with China.

Beijing has repeatedly dispatched such expeditions, encroaching steadily southward, despite the fact that China has no basis under international law from which to claim jurisdiction, its nine-dash line long since universally discredited. Malaysia deployed what ships were available from its coast guard equivalent and overstretched navy. A Vietnamese vessel also joined the fray, somewhat ambivalently, because Hanoi disputes its maritime boundary with Malaysia yet finds common cause with Kuala Lumpur as a fellow victim of China’s intimidatory tactics. The Chinese flotilla had earlier passed through Vietnam’s EEZ on its way toward Malaysian and Bruneian waters.

Such a powerful U.S. Navy assemblage operating in close proximity to the Chinese ships lent an escalatory geopolitical dimension to an already tense situation. To complete the maritime melee, an Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta, joined in exercises with the Americans near the West Capella. With COVID-19 having immobilized the USS Theodore Roosevelt, in Guam, and partially hamstrung another forward-based aircraft carrier, in Japan, the USS America’s grand sortie across the Western Pacific was a bold demonstration of the U.S. 7th Fleet’s ability to react, staring down the Chinese maritime forces in the act of intimidating its Southeast neighbors.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States “strongly opposes China’s bullying and we hope other nations will hold them to account, too.” Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne called on “all parties [to] refrain from destabilizing activities and work to ease tensions so the international community can devote full attention to responding cooperatively to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Here was the United States, alongside one of its closest allies, standing guard with Malaysia during its hour of need.

But the partner the United States was there to help had mixed feelings. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein issued his own statement affirming Malaysia’s commitment to safeguard its interests and rights in the South China Sea. Characteristically, Hishammuddin sought to position Malaysia in between the United States and China. Acknowledging that “international law guarantees the freedom of navigation,” he added that the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has “the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.” Such equivocation, needless to say, did not go down well in Washington. Within a few days, and without further incident, the USS America, its escorts, and the Australians quietly left the scene. China’s warships withdrew around the same time. On April 25, one of the U.S. Navy’s much smaller, faster littoral combat ships, operating from Singapore, moved through the area around the West Capella but did not linger.

The rest of the world has since moved on, but from Malaysia’s perspective, the episode is anything but over. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 remains active within Malaysia’s EEZ, guarded by four China Coast Guard vessels. Many within Malaysia’s government are unimpressed. “I told you so” is the refrain from the country’s foreign-policy establishment. Some, including in Malaysia’s navy, would still like to see a closer defense and security relationship with the United States as a hedge against further Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea. The abrupt end to Mahathir Mohamad’s second term as prime minister in February had promised an opening for a less anti-Western foreign policy.

The recent events have not helped their case. Malaysia feels shortchanged, believing that the U.S. Navy arrived unannounced and uninvited, prompting the arrival of more Chinese assets and escalating the situation beyond its capacity to handle independently. Critics will say this proves America’s lack of staying power: showing up with the cavalry, just long enough to make things worse. If the objective was to deter China from continuing its survey activity within Malaysia’s EEZ, it appears to have failed.

It also raises questions about the Trump administration’s hopeful assumption that Southeast Asian nations will rally to the anti-China cause once presented with a U.S. show of resolve. China’s brash diplomacy during the current pandemic may be rapidly alienating many countries around the world, but most Southeast Asian elites are unlikely to pull back from Beijing’s economic embrace. They are in too deep.

Once the West Capella finishes its current round of drilling, Malaysia could well be tempted to accept joint offshore energy development on China’s terms. Granted, the Philippines and Vietnam have protested China’s recent actions in the South China Sea, which have seen their own vessels targeted. But the Trump administration is unlikely to win new regional converts given its shambolic domestic handling of the pandemic while trading shrill accusations and counter-accusations with Beijing.

To be fair, the U.S. Navy’s decision not to dwell around the West Capella may say more about basic arithmetic than Washington’s attitude. It has fewer than 300 warships with which to maintain a worldwide presence. For the 7th Fleet, which is responsible for covering a massive area in the Indo-Pacific, this task is toughest given the great distances it must cover and the fact that China’s navy is already the world’s largest in hull numbers. U.S. submarines are active around the Western Pacific. But their presence brings little reassurance for allies and partners seeking a visible U.S. commitment to regional security. Operating in the South China Sea is particularly challenging for the U.S. Navy, as its closest bases are in Japan and Guam, plus a logistics command and berthing facilities for littoral combat ships in Singapore. The old American base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, shuttered in 1992, must be sorely missed. The base at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, too. Meanwhile, China has vastly upgraded its bases in the Spratly Islands, giving it the ability to rapidly surge naval and paramilitary forces to the southern extremities of the South China Sea.

Competition in the South China Sea is an endurance game. Like counterinsurgency, it requires stamina and benefits from the “indirect approach.” Presence is more important than firepower. The USS America amphibious ready group was a show of strength, but such fleeting muscular demonstrations are largely ineffective at countering China’s suffocation strategy directed at Southeast Asian claimants. The USS Barry, having since transited the Taiwan Strait and conducted a freedom of navigation patrol in the Paracel Islands, reveals how hard the 7th Fleet is being worked. But trying to be everywhere at once can mean going around in circles.

The littoral combat ship has been the butt of much criticism for its modest combat capability and reliability issues. But it could still be a more appropriate platform than larger warships for this kind of littoral presence operation, being nimbler and less escalatory. The ideal balance between agility, deterrence, and self-protection in the South China Sea probably looks more like a frigate. The U.S. Navy has just committed to an Italian future frigate design, but it does not have a single frigate in its inventory, currently, and the first ship will not enter the water until 2026. The value of the Australian naval contribution in the recent standoff was thus more than simply symbolic. Yet Australia’s major naval bases lie even farther from the South China Sea than the 7th Fleet’s bases in Japan.

This puts the onus back on Southeast Asia. If countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam, all in China’s firing line, really want the U.S. Navy to remain present in the South China Sea in ways that transcend short-term shows of resolve, they need to collectively come up with ways to rotate the burden of hosting it, as Singapore already does. Southeast Asian countries with a direct stake in the South China Sea must additionally put aside their differences and be prepared to finally act in concert. The most important lesson from the West Capella episode is that China won’t stop here.

Euan Graham is a Shangri-La Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, at the Asia office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in Singapore. Dr Graham specialises in maritime issues in the Western Pacific, including the South China Sea.

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