Two U.S. Navy ships sailed into the South China Sea Thursday in a show of support for a Malaysian drill ship that’s been getting hassled by Chinese vessels as Beijing continues its attempts to claim the resource-rich sea as its own.
The littoral combat ship Montgomery and the dry cargo ship Cesar Chavez each steamed near the Malaysia-contracted West Capella, which has been harassed by Chinese fishing vessels and coast guard ships in recent months, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The West Capella has been conducting exploratory drilling in two oil and gas fields, Malaysian moves that have irked a Chinese government that has increasingly tried to lay claim to the region.
Similar disputes have arisen in the past year with neighboring Vietnam as well.
Sunday's target was Fiery Cross Reef, officials said.
Both U.S. ships were already underway in the region at the time of the maneuver.
“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,” Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino said in a statement. “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.”
The Navy regularly sends ships into the contested waters. The so-called freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, are intended as a gray-hulled signal to Beijing that the United States seeks to keep those waters open and international.
“Through continued operational presence in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy supports transparency, the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, the principles that underpin security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, so that all nations in the region may benefit,” the command said.