US Sends Two Warships Into South China Sea as China Surveys Off Malaysia

In close proximity to U.S. ships are a combination of Chinese survey vessels, coast guard, and maritime militia ships.

US Sends Two Warships Into South China Sea as China Surveys Off Malaysia

The United States has sent an amphibious assault ship and a guided missile cruiser to the site of an ongoing survey by a Chinese vessel in Malaysian waters, the U.S. military said Tuesday, signaling Washington’s support for other countries in the region as China presses its advantage in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lt. Comm. Nicole Schwegman, spokeswoman for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed the USS America and USS Bunker Hill have been deployed in the South China Sea.

“Through our continued operational presence in the South China Sea, we are working with our allies and partners to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific,” she wrote in an email. “The U.S. supports the efforts of our allies and partners to determine their own economic interests.”

Schwegman did not state the exact location of the warships but satellite imagery from Tuesday provided by the European Union through the EO Browser service confirms the USS America is less than 60 nautical miles from the West Capella, a Malaysian-contracted oil exploration vessel.

In close proximity, there are a combination of Chinese survey vessels, coast guard, and maritime militia ships, according to vessel tracking software.

The Chinese survey vessel, named the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, arrived in Malaysian waters on April 16 and is currently surveying an area within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, between the West Capella and Malaysia’s coast.

As of Tuesday morning, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was roughly 180 nautical miles from the Malaysian coast – but only 100 nautical miles from the Luconia Shoals, which are claimed by both China and Malaysia in the southernmost part of the South China Sea. On April 17, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was also within 200 nautical miles of Indonesia’s Natuna Island.

Vessel-tracking software shows that the survey is being conducted in a back-and-forth manner over an area about 150 nautical miles wide, and creeping ever closer to Malaysia’s Sarawak state.

Malaysia’s coast guard last week confirmed that the Chinese survey ship was in Malaysian waters.

Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the Washington-based think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said there are numerous possible reasons for the U.S. to have sent warships to the area of the survey ship but it is unlikely Malaysia asked for the U.S. to intervene.

“I don't think the United States has any intention to directly engage on behalf of Malaysia, especially because Malaysia may not have asked for assistance and is not a U.S. treaty ally,” Cooper explained. “But it is useful for U.S. forces to be there to help monitor Chinese activities and show other claimants that China is not the only outside military capable of operating in the South China Sea.”

A graphical representation of the path of the Chinese survey ship Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 since it arrived off the coast of Malaysia April 16.
A graphical representation of the path of the Chinese survey ship Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 since it arrived off the coast of Malaysia April 16. Credit: MarineTraffic with annotation by RFA.
The Commander of the USS America Expeditionary Strike Group said that his forces had interacted with Chinese naval forces in the South China Sea this week.

"All our interactions continue to be safe and professional with them," Rear Adm. Fred Kacher told Reuters by phone from the USS America.

China has said that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is conducting normal activities and has accused U.S. officials of smearing Beijing. That followed State and Defense Department statements strongly critical of China’s recent activities in the South China Sea, particularly the April 2 sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in a confrontation with a China Coast Guard ship. The State Department accused China of exploiting nations’ distraction over COVID-19 to expand its “unlawful claims” in the South China Sea.

The Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is currently accompanied by China Coast Guard (CCG) and People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia ships. Two CCG ships, the Zhongguohaijing 4203 and 1105, are sailing alongside the Hai Yang and shadowing supply ships supporting the West Capella, according to vessel-tracking software. Another CCG ship, the Haijing 5203, has been sailing in and around Luconia Shoals since April 1.

The apparent standoff near the West Capella occurs as Beijing faces diplomatic pushback from some of its Southeast Asian neighbors against its sweeping assertion of sovereignty across the resource-rich sea.

At the weekend, China upped the ante when it announced two new administrative districts for South China Sea and released a new map naming all the islands and reefs it claims in the contested region – though Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have sovereignty claims that overlap with China’s.

In recent weeks the U.S. has in fact withdrawn key assets from the Pacific. The aircraft carrier the USS Theodore Roosevelt had to be pulled out of active deployment on March 26 due to dangerous rates of coronavirus infections among its crew. The U.S. Air Force announced last Friday it would stop deploying strategic bombers to its base on the Pacific island of Guam.

But Cooper said the arrival of the USS America and Bunker Hill “serves as a reminder that the U.S. Navy is large and not dependent on one ship to show regional presence.” He said the U.S. is using this deployment to remind China and other claimants in the South China Sea that China has no legal basis to economic rights in the area the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 is operating in.

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Death of WHO Driver Sparks Calls For Cease-fire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

HRW sees ‘travesty’ in shooting of local employee Pyae Sone Win Maung while carrying COVID-19 samples.

Death of WHO Driver Sparks Calls For Cease-fire in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

Humanitarian groups called for a cease-fire in Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state on Tuesday after a World Health Organization driver died from wounds sustained when gunmen fired on him and another health worker as they drove from the conflict zone to the major city Yangon carrying coronavirus test samples, health officials said.

The vehicle was attacked Monday after the pair drove over a suspension bridge in Minbya township, though it is unclear whether Myanmar soldiers or rebel Arakan Army (AA) troops were behind the shooting. Both sides blamed the other for the ambush that killed local WHO employee Pyae Sone Win Maung and injured a health department worker.

The killing prompted 16 international humanitarian organizations to call for the two armies to lay down their arms and for the government to allow aid workers widespread and unfettered access across Rakhine state and elsewhere, so they can reach communities and help counter the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The incident in Minbya township on April 20 demonstrates the urgent need for armed actors in Myanmar to lay down their weapons, heeding the call of the U.N. Secretary General for a global cease-fire,” the groups said in a joint statement issued Tuesday, referring to U.N chief António Guterres’ early April appeal for a cessation of armed conflict during the coronavirus crisis.

“The ongoing conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin states between the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] and the Arakan Army is causing an increasing number of civilian casualties, while severely hampering access to healthcare as well as other efforts to reach communities with much needed assistance in the midst of a global pandemic,” the statement said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) appealed to the Myanmar government and the military to allow U.N. investigators access to the scene of the shooting to conduct an independent investigation.

“The death of this WHO staff member as he was driving COVID-19 swabs to be tested illustrates the travesty of continuing war amidst a global pandemic,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, in a statement.

“Since it's unclear who killed Pyae Sone Win Maung, it is imperative the Myanmar civilian government and Tatmadaw immediately give U.N. investigators unfettered access to Minbya township so they can conduct an independent and impartial investigation,” he said.

Intense fighting between Myanmar forces and the AA, which seeks greater autonomy for the state’s ethnic Rakhine population, has raged for more than 15 months. The conflict zone is under lockdown, and the government has suspended mobile internet service there as a security measure.

Pyae Sone Win Maung, 28, and Aung Myo Oo left Rakhine’s capital Sittwe in a U.N.-marked vehicle Monday morning to take the test samples to Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon.

Pyae Sone Win Maung’s father, Htay Win Maung, told RFA that he had received news that the vehicle his son was driving had been hit by gunfire.

“We were told that there were artillery blasts, and that they had been hit,” he said. “It was my son, the driver, and another person who is a health official.”

“The health official was just injured on the arm,” he added, “I don’t know the details of how my son got hit and killed.”

Tun Wai, health coordinator of nearby Min Ywa village, said a group of unfamiliar men in plainclothes brought the pair in a small vehicle to the local clinic.

“I had been looking for two WHO staffers when the vehicle arrived around 6:30 p.m.,” he said. “They said that the two patients they had transported were health department employees.”

Dr. Soe Win Paing, assistant director of Rakhine state’s Public Health Department, said the attack occurred at 5:30 p.m. and the two men were taken to Minbya Hospital 90 minutes later.

Both were treated at the hospital, but Pyae Sone Win Maung, who was hemorrhaging from his wounds, died just before 1 a.m., Soe Win Paing said.

Hospital staff would not permit RFA to speak with Aung Myo Oo.

On Tuesday afternoon, members of the Myanmar Red Cross transferred Pyae Son Win Maung's body and Aung Myo Oo to Sittwe.

Army, AA trade blame

Local authorities in Rakhine’s Minbya township said that Myanmar troops stationed for the past year near the Ramaung ferry port have been checking vehicles before they cross the suspension bridge.

A statement issued by the AA Monday night said Myanmar forces fired at the U.N. vehicle around 5:40 p.m. as it was driving across the bridge after guards at the security checkpoint allowed it to pass.

AA troops found the WHO vehicle stranded on the side of the road about an hour after the shooting and rescued the two injured men inside, the statement said.

AA spokesman Khine Thukha told RFA that Arakan troops had nothing to do with the fatal shooting and that government soldiers, who opened fire on the vehicle, have implicated the AA to cover up their crime.

“The gunfire came from Myanmar military side,” he said. “They let that vehicle pass the security gate and opened fire on it from behind. This has nothing to do with us. … It is an attempt to implicate us for the crime they committed.”

Myanmar military spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun said AA troops opened fire on the vehicle after it passed through the security gate and drove along the road, and that national soldiers had no reason to fire their weapons at it.

“Only AA troops open fire on vehicles driving on the road,” he said. “The military has never done that. The military has no reason to do that. There are both civilian vehicles and cargo trucks on the road. This was intentional.”

Zaw Min Tun said there had been a recent battle in the area near the bridge and that the AA frequently attacked Myanmar soldiers stationed there.

RFA could not independently confirm which side was responsible for the gunfire.

Lack of clear information

As of Tuesday, Myanmar registered 121 confirmed COVID-19 cases and five fatalities.

Journalists and NGO workers said Tuesday that the government has failed to provide clear and concise information to the public in its daily COVID-19 press releases and in recent announcements.

They pointed to the government having waited until 8 p.m. local time on April 19 to announce that factories would reopen the next day following mandatory shutdowns during the Buddhist New Year holiday.

The Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population then issued a murky notification that it would first make necessary inquiries at factories and companies between April 20 and 30, leaving workers uncertain as to whether they should return to their workplaces and whether they would be compensated if they did not.

“Because of this situation, conflicts between workers and factory owners arose,” said Thet Thet Aung, director of the worker help group Point of Future Light. “Many questions were raised, [and] the owners said there were no official statements.”

Journalist Thiha Thway noted that ordinary citizens may have difficulty understanding government announcements even if they reread them.

“Many people don’t understand the statements of government ministries after reading them just once,” he said. “They may read them many times, but they still don’t understand, and then they become confused and angry.”

This can lead to “rumors, more fear, and more anger,” he added.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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