South China Sea: US Navy steps up presence in latest challenge to Beijing

Satellite imagery showed the US amphibious assault ship, the USS Makin Island making its way through the Strait of Malacca into the contentious waters, between Wednesday night and the early hours of Thursday. Analysts have suggested the action highlights Washington’s commitment to the Philippines, as China shows no signs of changing its position.

According to the the US Indo-Pacific Command, sailors onboard were conducting “a live-fire training exercise”. The latest presence of US military ships comes at a time when both China and the US have sailed aircraft carriers into the South China Sea.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore commented on the situation and 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.

“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.”

The latest presence of US military ships comes at a time when both China and the US have sailed aircraft carriers into the South China Sea.

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore commented on the situation and 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.

“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.”

Beijing is currently claiming sovereignty over most of the energy-rich South China Sea, despite a ruling by an international tribunal in 2016 which rejected China’s claims.

Additionally, the increased presence of China’s coastguard near islands in the East China Sea and Beijing’s increasing grey zone warfare tactics against Taiwan, are among the other points of contention.

China is also asserting its authority over the Diaoyu Islands that Japan claims as the Senkakus, and the self-ruled island of Taiwan.

The escalating dispute with the Philippines over Whitsun Reef continues with Manila issuing strongly worded statements opposing the presence of what it suggests is a maritime militia.

Beijing has repeatedly denied this, claiming its vessels are fishing boats sheltering from bad weather.

Military commentator Liang Guoliang added: “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.”

While the Philippines continues to defend its claim to the reefs, China has been drilling into the sea sediment to extract gas resources.

The solid ice-like crystals formed from a mixture of methane and water in the seabed and have been identified as a promising source of energy.

Although the exact location is unknown, China is claiming approximately 90 per cent of the South China sea as its territorial waters.

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