China’s aggression in the South China Sea during the pandemic draws international criticism

US & Australian vessels in the South China Sea. Photo: US Indo-Pacific Command - Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas

China is facing international backlash for stepping up its illegal claims in the South China Sea amid the coronavirus pandemic. Recent incidents and hostile rhetoric show that Beijing is using the situation to increase its aggression against Southeast Asian nations in the area.

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China is facing major backlash for stepping up its illegal claims in the South China Sea after it announced the establishment of two new administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, to which it unlawfully claims control.

“On the one hand [China] is engaging in face mask diplomacy [providing medical supplies to other countries] but on the other hand it’s on the offensive,” said Richard Heydarian, an academic and former Philippine government adviser.

“All of them should be seen as part of one package in which China seizes the strategic opportunity of not only its neighbouring countries scrambling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but also the US Navy’s suspension of overseas appointments,” he added.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry has called out China’s announcement as an act of aggression and a serious violation of the country’s sovereignty.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China continues to promote aggression and violate the sovereignty of states in the South China Sea.

On April 2, a Chinese ship collided with and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel, drawing international condemnation and calls from both the United States and the Philippines, which has also seen China violate its maritime territory.

“COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust. In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents,” said the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs. The incident is similar to a case in June 2019 when Chinese fishing vessels pushed into Philippine waters and sunk Filipino fishing vessels.

“The United States strongly opposes China’s bullying,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week before a virtual meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers, adding that China is “coercing its neighbors in the South China Sea, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel.”

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Thursday that her government is concerned about “reported efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource development activities, the declaration of new ‘administrative districts’ over disputed features and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.”

The recent incidents and hostile rhetoric from Beijing show that China will continue to act illegally ​​to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has attempted to push its own version of the incident in early April, claiming that the Chinese vessel attempted to avoid the Vietnamese fishing boat but the Vietnamese fishermen still rammed the Chinese coast guard. But the ministry has been unable to offer any explanation of why Vietnamese fishermen would ram the Chinese boat and many in the international community have questioned the Chinese account.

China retaliates for action at the UN

Many experts believe that the sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels is in retaliation for Vietnam’s diplomatic actions at the United Nations against Chinese claims at the United Nations. In late March, Vietnam submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nation protesting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The note outlines how under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the only internationally-recognised law governing maritime territory, China’s territorial claims in the Paracel and Spratly islands are exaggerated and illegal. Beijing’s attempts to use claims to submerged features as a basis for maritime territory are also baseless.

“Vietnam protests claims on the East Sea that go over boundaries as stated in UNCLOS, including claims regarding historical rights,” the note read. “These claims hold no legal value.”

Vietnam’s note was the latest in a series of UN actions from Southeast Asian states opposing China’s claims in the South China Sea. These actions are largely a response to the tactics China uses to build its claims.

Recent incidents continue a strategy of intimidation

In recent years, China’s main tactic has been to target ships from Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines that operate in waters claimed by Beijing. Vietnamese fishers report having their boats rammed and sank by Chinese vessels. There are also testimonies from fishers describing how Chinese boat operators unlawfully abducted and detained those found operating in waters claimed by Beijing.

China then uses data on these fishing vessels as evidence to accuse Southeast Asian nations of allowing their boats to illegally enter Chinese waters for fishing or spying purposes. At the same time, the Chinese government is deploying research stations on illegally-constructed artificial islands. Beijing is also developing plans to deploy nuclear reactors in the area to power its oil and gas exploration

The recent incidents also offer insight into what China’s next course of action will be in the area.

As Beijing has grown bolder, it’s now more likely to focus explicitly on oil and gas—on both its own exploration efforts and on pressuring other countries’ claims to seabed resources. A Chinese ship has recently been following an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas.

China has also already begun to gather a large group of ships at Sanya, on the south side of Hainan, including Haiyang Dizhi or “HD” ships, which have been previously linked to aggression in the area. If China ramps up its oil and gas exploration activities, it will also likely dispatch more navy warships and early warning aircraft to protect and support these ships.

China is also choosing to continue its aggression at a time when heads of state are calling for cooperation to handle the COVID-19 crisis and prevent similar pandemic crises in the future. The US, Australia and other countries are also pushing for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan.

Recent Chinese aggression has also prompted an international maritime response. The US has moved guided missile cruiser the Bunker Hill and amphibious assault ship the America into Malaysian maritime territory claimed by China. Australia has also sent a frigate, the Parramatta, into the area. The responses represent significant moves to oppose China’s activities in the area and show that the international community likely won’t tolerate maritime aggression amid a pandemic.

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