Learning in the South China Sea: The U.S. Response to the West Capella Standoff
Malaysian oil exploration in a contested area of the South China Sea sparked a “five-nation face off” in April, with Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese, U.S., and Australian maritime forces sailing within relatively close proximity. When the responding U.S. Navy Expeditionary Strike Group departed after spending only a few days in the area, some observers panned the U.S. response as uninvited, insufficient, and having emboldened China. The passage of a few weeks has shown these accusations to be premature, but also highlighted a recurring weakness in the U.S. approach to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. While the U.S. strike group may have departed, U.S. forces sortied from both forward deployed locations and the U.S. homeland to maintain a persistent presence over the South China Sea with platforms ranging from small surface combatants to strategic bombers. China’s presence has remained largely static. Overall, the United States shows progress in its approach but also an inexplicable missed opportunity to reach out to its Southeast Asian partners.
The West Capella Mission
When the Malaysian national oil and gas company, Petronas, contracted the drillship West Capella to explore an area of overlapping Malaysian and Vietnamese maritime claims, China responded by dispatching the survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 along with a flotilla of coast guard and paramilitary vessels. (The area where West Capella was operating also falls within China’s nine-dash line.) In response, U.S. forces maintained a persistent joint presence near West Capella for nearly a month. First, the littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords, which had been forward-deployed to the Indo-Pacific since September 2019, conducted a multi-day patrol through the area from April 26-28. On April 29, two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers launched from Ellsworth Air Base, South Dakota, and conducted a 32-hour mission taking them over the South China Sea. Little more than a week later, the USS Montgomery and USNS Cesar Chavez conducted a patrol through the area. (USS Montgomery is the second of two littoral combat ships rotationally deployed to Singapore.) U.S.-based B-52 and B-2 bombers conducted a strategic deterrence mission spanning the European Command and Indo-Pacific Command areas of responsibility on May 7. On May 8, two more bombers launched from Guam and flew over the South China Sea. By at least one report, these flights took the aircraft into the vicinity of the West Capella. These aircraft are part of the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, which arrived in theater in response to last-minute tasking with four aircraft and 200 personnel on May 1. U.S. Submarine Forces Pacific announced on May 8 that all of its forward-deployed submarines were underway conducting contingency response operations. Since submarines, by the nature of their sub-surface operations, may lack credibility as a signaling mechanism, the U.S. Seventh Fleet released a photograph of one of the submarines operating on the surface. This photo accompanied an announcement that three submarines, along with ships and aircraft, conducted an advanced warfighting exercise in the Philippine Sea on April 9. The U.S. Navy also conducted two separate freedom of navigation operations and two transits of the Taiwan Strait during this period. Finally, as West Capella concluded its operations, USS Gabrielle Giffords made one last pass through the area.
Rather than highlighting a lack of staying power, as some critics contended, U.S. joint forces mobilized a tremendous amount of warfighting capability across the South and East China Seas by leveraging a potent combination of substantial forward-deployed forces complemented by snap deployments from the continental United States. The promised operational utility of forward-deploying littoral combat ships to Singapore seems to have finally materialized, despite early issues.
Why Go It Alone?
As impressive as the U.S. response may have been, its mostly unilateral appearance invites an important question: Why was the U.S. response not better coordinated with its regional partners, particularly Malaysia? For years, Malaysia’s response to Chinese depredations in Malaysian waters has been muted, tied to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s position that the South China Sea should be “free of big warships.” Malaysia is reluctant to challenge China openly, both due to its under-powered maritime forces and its economic reliance on the Chinese market. This lack of invitation, or even forewarning, was an unnecessarily confusing flub on the American side. Malaysia maintains excessive claims that run counter to the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has challenged in past freedom of navigation operations. As U.S. forces steamed south, Malaysian policymakers and defense organizations could not be sure whether the U.S. was sailing to their aid, or to challenge their maritime claims. This confusion was entirely avoidable. The U.S. has supplied secure communications networks to Malaysia under its Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative and should have those same networks available both ashore and onboard warships. While overt cooperation at sea might invite more risk than some partners, like Malaysia, would be willing to shoulder, the West Capella standoff represented a prime opportunity to operationalize the considerable U.S. security cooperation dollars invested in this network. Operational sharing of information and imagery gathered by U.S. forces, supported by U.S.-provided equipment, should have been a pre-planned element of this operation. Its omission lessens that equipment’s value in the eyes of U.S. partners.
Another possible explanation for the lack of prior coordination is that the U.S. has come to expect a tepid response from Malaysia and was set on responding regardless of Malaysian apprehension, and so took action without opening the door for Malaysian objection. As Malaysia’s government remains largely on the sidelines in terms of the South China Sea, other U.S. partners’ stances are increasingly robust. With that in mind, it is possible that the U.S. show of support was intended for a broader regional audience, rather than solely a Malaysian one. Vietnam and Indonesia have shown themselves unafraid of pushing back on China’s dangerous, revisionist maritime activities and — as rumors swirl that Vietnam may pursue legal action against China in their dispute over competing maritime claims — this is the right time for the U.S. to clearly communicate its support for regional states. No South China Sea claimant has forgotten the U.S. bungling of its involvement in China’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal, so it is crucial to avoid resurrecting that bad memory at a time when the U.S. is eager to present itself as the time-tested security guarantor in the region.
Was It “Mission Accomplished?”
There is no evidence, beyond Chinese Communist Party propaganda, that the duration of the U.S. Expeditionary Strike Group’s mission emboldened China or escalated the situation in the vicinity of the West Capella drill ship. A People’s Liberation Army Navy Type 052B Guangzhou-class destroyer, PLANS Wuhan, did reportedly cruise through the area around the same time as USS America but, overall, Chinese reactions to the U.S. presence were notably subdued. The Chinese response to the freedom of navigation operations conducted during the same period was far more confrontational. In fact, China’s Foreign Ministry announced there was no standoff at all near the West Capella, and that the situation in the South China Sea “is basically stable.”
The U.S. public affairs posture has ramped-up steadily since the days immediately surrounding the U.S.-Australian group’s combined mission. At the outset of the U.S. response, the Department of State led with a statement offering strong support for ASEAN as well as denouncing Chinese maritime aggression on April 22. The Department of Defense was slower in starting its publicity campaign. USS Gabrielle Giffords’ first sortie was not even covered directly, with one press release coming from the same period as its transit but with no mention of anything specific and listing the ship’s location as “South China Sea.” However, in early May, detailed releases covering the strategic bomber missions, surface and submarine deployments, and unmanned aerial systems operations came within days of one another. Marine Forces Pacific announced on May 6 that its rotational presence in Australia, on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, would resume soon. The timing and nature of these releases suggests a coordinated, whole-of-government strategic communications strategy, involving both the Department of State and Department of Defense, including U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Strategic Command, the U.S. Seventh Fleet and its subordinate task forces.
Learning From the West Capella Mission — The Good and the Bad
The U.S. Department of Defense’s approach to China’s revisionist behavior in the South China Sea has provided ample opportunity for criticism over the past decade. Managing an effective response to Chinese maritime forces has challenged a U.S. joint force unused to competing with a peer competitor. As the West Capella concludes its contracted work and departs the disputed area, this case should be viewed as a step forward in the American approach to confronting China and reassuring its allies. The combination of joint presence and effective, coordinated public affairs messaging should be the foundation for future progress. However, in terms of lessons learned, this case highlights a failure to communicate U.S. intentions more broadly across the region. By acting more inclusively, the U.S. might have assuaged partners’ anxiety about its actions and created opportunities for cooperation.
When viewing the American response to the West Capella standoff in retrospect, several things become clear. The U.S. generated a significant display of joint warfighting capability in response to Chinese maritime coercion. The weeks-long joint mission blunted criticisms that Chinese maritime forces were emboldened by the short duration of the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group’s mission to the area. The U.S. may have responded without explicit invitation from Malaysia, but clearly demonstrated its intent to confront Chinese revisionist behavior at sea at a critical time. A coordinated public affairs campaign highlighted the unique U.S. ability to leverage domestic and forward bases for immediate response, long range missions, and surge deployments in support of its allies and partners. Despite all these positive achievements, the U.S. mission still struck a sour note with some for its failure to engage Southeast Asian partners early on with a message relevant to their interests.
The oft-used tagline of “supporting freedom of navigation and overflight” has become a tired platitude in the Indo-Pacific, used so often as to be near-meaningless. Vice Adm. Bill Merz, Commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, has the right message: “The U.S. supports the efforts of our allies and partners in the lawful pursuit of their economic interests.” Although freedom of navigation and overflight can seem remote and theoretical, Vice Adm. Merz’s formulation makes it clear that these principles are central to the economic well-being of America’s Indo-Pacific partners. While this series of operations should be considered a step forward in U.S. South China Sea policy, there can be no true success without meaningfully engaging with and supporting the claimant states in their struggle to protect their maritime economies and preserve sovereignty.
Blake Herzinger (@BDHerzinger) is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: MC2 Brenton Poyser