U.S. Pacific Fleet recently deployed the littoral combat ship USS Montgomery to the worksite of the drillship West Capella in the South China Sea. West Capella is drilling a well for Malaysian oil and gas major Petronas in waters contested by Vietnam and Beijing, and her activity in the area has attracted attention – including an uneasy three-way (or four-way) military presence.
“We are committed to a rules-based order in the South China Sea and we will continue to champion freedom of the seas and the rule of law,” said Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of Pacific Fleet. “The Chinese Communist Party must end its pattern of bullying Southeast Asians out of offshore oil, gas, and fisheries. Millions of people in the region depend on those resources for their livelihood.”
It is not the first time that the U.S. Navy has conducted a freedom of navigation operation adjacent to West Capella. In mid-April, the USS America, USS Bunker Hill and USS Barry transited past the rig, along with the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Parramatta.
Vietnam contests Malaysia’s claim to the site, and Vietnamese forces and civilian auxiliaries have maintained a persistent presence during West Capella’s operations, according to defense analysts at AMTI. Chinese forces in the form of China Coast Guard cutters and the Chinese seismic survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 have been frequent visitors as well. A rotating group of Chinese fishing vessels – likely members of China’s extensive maritime militia – have been on scene for months, according to AMTI.
China has laid claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea, including waters well beyond its UNCLOS territorial sea boundaries. Despite international pressure, it has reclaimed and militarized multiple land features in the Spratly and Paracel island chains, and it has consistently pressured neighboring states not to develop resources within their own internationally-recognized waters. Its new island bases in the Spratly archipelago have provided it with a logistics platform to sustain naval presence operations in the region.
American forces have not confronted Chinese assets directly in the South China Sea, but the U.S. Navy conducts regular demonstrations of the right to navigate through Chinese-claimed waters without interference. According to Aquilino, American forces will “stand with regional friends and partners to resist coercion and oppose unlawful claims to international waters and resources.”
The USS Montgomery’s transit is also a sign of the Navy’s new willingness to deploy the two variants of the Littoral Combat Ship class on high-profile missions. Both LCS series were temporarily sidelined in 2016 due to significant operational difficulties, and they have only recently resumed their deployments. Both LCS variants will be replaced by the new FFG(X) frigate in future serial production.
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