Did the U.S. Navy send 100,000 military forces to the South China Sea in a move to increase its presence in the region, against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic? No, that's not true. In an emailed statement and interview with Lead Stories, Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, U.S. Indo-Pacific command spokeswoman, confirmed that three ships are forward-deployed to the region and currently are operating in the South China Sea. But the combined personnel capacity of those ships is less than 4,000 -- nowhere near 100,000.
And the spokeswoman told Lead Stories that it's innacurate to say the ships were just deployed to the area -- describing instead the Navy's "continued operational presence in the South China Sea."
The claim originated in a video (archived here) posted to YouTube by US DOT COM on April 22, 2020, titled "Tension [SIC] Escalate (April 23,2020) : US Deploys 100,000 Military to South China Sea Amid Pandemic". It opened:
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the U.S. hard and seriously disrupted the U.S. military's combat readiness and deployments. It is reported that the pandemic has spread to at least 150 U.S. military bases and four aircraft carriers. Yet, this hasn't slowed down the U.S. military in seeking domination on the West Pacific through military means. Rather, it has kept on making waves in the South China Sea. From China's perspective, however, the South China Sea is a matter of national sovereignty, security and development interests, a natural shield of national security and a strategic sea route. Therefore, the South China Sea game is endowed with strategic and structural features. As the U.S. presidential election is just around the corner, the so-called "China issue" will be an unavoidable subject in the campaign of both the Democratic and Republican parties. As far as the South China Sea issue is concerned, the U.S. government's tough stance against China, as showcased by its military operations on the sea, will not only cater to part of the voters at home, but also consolidate its relations with international allies.
Click below to watch the video on YouTube:
The YouTube video and its commentary claim the U.S. is seeking to take control in the South China Sea region while the world is distracted by the coronavirus. But in an emailed statement to Lead Stories, the U.S Indo-Pacific command spokeswoman described the operation as one that exists "to promote freedom of navigation and overflight, and the international principles that underpin security and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific."
The background here is a long-running regional dispute over control of the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over much of the region -- a claim that Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all reject, according to the The New York Times on April 21. That story read, in part:
Last month, China opened two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines and others. The reefs are also equipped with defense silos and military-grade runways.
Over the weekend, the Chinese government announced that it had formally established two new districts in the South China Sea that include dozens of contested islets and reefs. Many are submerged bits of atoll that do not confer territorial rights, according to international law."
Also in the Times April 21 story is this from Peter Jennings, a former Australian defense official who is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.:
"It's a quite deliberate Chinese strategy to try to maximize what they perceive as being a moment of distraction and the reduced capability of the United States to pressure neighbors."