Learning in the South China Sea: The US Response to the West Capella Standoff

War on the Rocks – 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.