The Royal Australian Navy Anzac-class frigate HMAS Parramatta has joined a U.S. Navy task group centred around an helicopter assault ship carrying F-35 stealth fighters in the South China Sea for exercises.

In a news release, the U.S. Navy 7th fleet, which is headquartered in Japan, said the HMAS Parramatta (FFH 154) began sailing with Ticonderoga-class guided missile-cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52) on April 13, before the ships rendezvoused with amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) and Arleigh-Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) April 18.

The USS America is a modified Makin Island-class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) geared towards aviation operations, with additional space for fixed-wing and helicopter operations following the deletion of a well dock for landing craft, with operating additional U.S. Marine Corps Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey tiltrotors in mind.

200418-N-IW125-3241 SOUTH CHINA SEA (April 18, 2020) The U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), left, is underway with the Royal Australian Navy guided-missile frigate HMAS Parramatta (FFH 154), the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52). The America Expeditionary Strike Group is deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh/Released)

Photos released by the U.S. Navy showed the USS America carrying at least five of the short take-off and vertical landing F-35Bs, eight MV-22B Ospreys, three Sikorsky CH-53E Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters and one Sikorsky MH-60S Knighthawk multi-role helicopter during the exercises.

In its news release, 7th Fleet said that the operations with Parramatta have included integrated live fire exercises, coordinated helicopter operations, small boat force protection drills, command and control integration, and manoeuvring interoperability.

“It is great to be operating with the Australians again,” said Captain Kurt Sellerberg, Commanding officer of the USS Bunker Hill.

Defence acknowledged the exercises in the South China Sea, with a social media post noting that “Australia has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades”.

The exercise comes as tensions in the South China Sea has ramped up over the past week, with a Chinese government-owned survey ship operating in waters claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam and China near Malaysia’s eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak since last week.

Reuters reported that the the Haiyang Dizhi 8 is closely shadowing the exploration vessel West Capella, contracted by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas, in the disputed waters, quoting “regional security sources”. It also said that Vietnamese vessels are observing developments in the area.

A Malaysian security source quoted in the Reuters report added that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was flanked at one point on Friday by more than 10 Chinese vessels, “including those belonging to maritime militia and the coast guard.”

The West Capella had started operating unilaterally in the disputed area in late December 2019, which falls under the Joint Defined Area that Malaysia and Vietnam had jointly submitted to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009, triggering a three-way standoff between vessels from the two countries and joined by China, which declares ownership the entire area under its vague “nine-dash line” claim.

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