Pandemic meets geopolitics in the South China Sea

Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute

Historically, epidemics and pandemics have ravaged societies and civilization as they culled more human beings than natural disasters and armed conflicts combined. Along with natural calamities together with famines and hunger, major epidemics and pandemics have also intensified underlying and existing competitions and conflicts among human societies.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides China with the golden opportunity to flex its diplomatic and military muscle against other claimant states in the South China Sea. As the United States and Japan are distracted by their efforts to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective societies, China is actively pressing its territorial claims in the disputed waters. Chinese warships, coastguard vessels, survey ships, and aircraft have been involved in maritime incidents along China’s periphery. These incidents involved three of the four Southeast Asian claimant states: the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan.


While China is conducting health diplomacy with its Southeast Asian neighbors, it is simultaneously pursuing the goal of maritime expansion in the South China Sea. In March, the Chinese government opened two research stations on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) and Zamora (Subi) reefs, two of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines. A Chinese military transport plan was stationed and spotted on Kagitingan Reef. In the same month, a squadron of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft crossed the median line in the Taiwan Straits — an unofficial demarcation line between Taiwan and China — in an aerial exercise aimed at intimidating Taiwan by demonstrating China’s ability to conduct night operation.

In early April, a China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol craft rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near a small island in the Paracels. On April 18, Hainan Province announced the creation of two districts to administer the disputed waters in the South China Sea. China also deployed a survey vessel, the Haiyan Dizhi 8, supported by a flotilla of CCG and People’s Armed Forces Militia vessels, to shadow a Malaysian-commissioned drillship, The West Capella, near the coast of Malaysia in an area that is claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia. Analysts see this move as China’s harassment of Malaysian and Vietnamese oil and gas operations by making it prohibitively risky and expensive for both Southeast Asian countries to continue these legitimate activities in their respective EEZs.


Although distracted by the deadly pandemic on American soil, the Trump Administration is vigorously reacting to China’s gambits in the South China Sea. In early April, the US State Department issued a strong diplomatic statement expressing serious concerns about the CCG’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel and calling on China “to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemics, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”

On April 18, the US Indo-Pacific Command (USIndoPaCom) deployed three US Navy ships, the USS America, USS Bunker Hill, and USS Barry 50 nautical miles off the Malaysian coast, near the area where The West Cappella was facing the Haiyang Dizhi 8 in a standoff. Later the three American warships were joined by the Royal Australian Navy’s HMAS Parramatta. This created a five-state naval impasse that involved US and Chinese warships and raised the prospect of a direct armed confrontation between the two great powers in the South China Sea.

In late April, the USS Bunker Hill conducted an innocent passage maneuver through the Spratly Islands, while the USS Barry sailed near the Paracel Islands as part of the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the disputed waters. Accordingly, these operations were aimed to challenge unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea.


China’s aggressive moves are not unprecedented, and are not part of a new and post-pandemic maritime strategy in the South China Sea. Rather, they are consistent with Chinese statecraft that relies on taking advantage of any strategic opportunity to expand one’s geopolitical interests relative to other claimant states in the disputed waters. Current US responses, however, implied that despite its preoccupation with the pandemic, it would not give China a free hand in pursuing its maritime ambitions. Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has not curtailed the great powers’ endeavors to pursue their territorial ambitions — instead, it is intensifying their current geopolitical competitions.




This article was originally published in BusinessWorld. Image Source: Reuters.

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