China is using Covid-19 pandemic to step up encroachment in the South China Sea


China is using Covid19 pandemic to step up encroachment in the South China SeaAs experts have warned, once China proclaimed that the Wuhan epidemic outbreak was under control, they would take advantage of the complicated global context, especially those in the US and Europe, to conduct new activities in the South China Sea.

On the ground, Chinese ships continuously travel from Hainan island to seven outposts illegally occupied in Spratly Islands to prove their regular presence in the South China Sea. Not once has China ceased their encroachment, even amidst the novel corona virus outbreak.

In early March 2020, China sent military aircrafts to the South China Sea to conduct anti-submarine exercises in response to US Navy’s recent operations in the area. The People’s Liberation Army Daily, official newspaper of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), explicitly reported that these air-sea exercises simulated the face-to-face encounters between Chinese forces and “invading foreign aircraft and warships in the South China Sea”; The drills included searches of unidentified foreign aircraft with the help of surface vessels, and driving enemy planes out of China’s airspace – even “shooting them down with missiles to stop them from attacking Chinese warships”, the report said.

Xinhua News Agency reported on March 20 that China had inaugurated two research stations on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef in Spratly Islands. These two facilities will monitor and measure ecological and environmental changes in these areas. Together with a Chinese-built research center on Mischief Reef, they will enhance Chinese research process in the South China Sea. Observers say that China is consolidating and strengthening its presence in the South China Sea under the pretext of scientific research.

On March 26, 2020, Chinese state television reported that China had extracted 861,400 cubic meters of natural gas from methane hydrates, after a month-long trial in the South China Sea; This is a crucial step in the industrialization of methane hydrates, which has been identified as a potential new gas source for China and the South China Sea is believed to contain some of the world's most promising deposits.

In its twitter stream along with images dated March 29, the Israel-based satellite image company ImageSat International (ISI) said that the Chinese Y-8 aircraft had landed on Fiery Cross Reef and might bring supplies; Y-8 transport aircrafts’ operation shows that little have Chinese conducts in the South China Sea been affected by the corona virus epidemic in mainland China.

Many observers believe that China is benefiting from the global corona virus pandemic as Beijing seems to be gaining the upper hand. China is gradually containing the Covid-19 epidemic, while the whole world is still struggling, including the US, the UK, France, even the entire Europe, Japan and India, as well as other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, China is taking advantage of the whole world’s struggle against the Covid-19 epidemic to move forward in the South China Sea.

In spite of the US Secretary of Defense’s reassurance that the military’s primary duty remains the protection of the United States, her people and interests abroad, many US military activities overseas have been interrupted due to individual country's response to the epidemic.

All over the world, US soldiers are quarantined within their barracks. Each and every entry and exit is strictly monitored while health declaration, body temperature measurements and isolation of people infected with corona virus are simultaneously enforced. Since early March 2020, American military personnel have been banned from traveling due to the rising number of cases. To combat Covid-19, the US Navy had sent a large number of needed medical equipment and personnel to the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), US Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and USS America (LHA 6), to conduct on-board screen tests without sending samples to shore.

U.S. 7th Fleet Surgeon, Capt. Christine L. G. Sears, said: “The team here in 7th Fleet has taken Covid-19 seriously from the beginning and has many public health measures already in place. The FDPMU and NMRC augmentation teams provide additional depth in our ability to combat this virus”. It is clear that while they still struggle with the spread of Covid-19, the US could not help other Asian countries deal with China.

Many international experts believe that the fight against Covid 19 might distract the world from the South China Sea disputes, resulting in a void for China to fill in. Beijing will take full advantage of this opportunity to continue stepping up encroachment and militarization in the South China Sea to monopolize the area.

In addition, Beijing government is under internal pressure due to national economic downturn, while being heavily criticized for its mishandling of the disease. Those in power in Beijing will increase their activities in the South China Sea to "deflect" internal attention – such is the way of Beijing leaders in time of difficulties.

China's strategy is to take any advantage possible, no matter the situation. Perhaps they will act quickly as China considers the current situation to be ripe – as evidenced by their recent deployments in the South China Sea.

Commenting on China's recent activities in the South China Sea, Hoang Viet, member of the East Sea Research Foundation, emphasized: “Frankly speaking, since the beginning of the outbreak, China has never stopped their activities in the South China Sea. It was true they were unprepared for the pandemic when Wuhan became the epicenter with heavy death toll. However, such internal unpreparedness has neither slowed down nor increased their external activities, especially those in the South China Sea. Later, when the pandemic spread to the rest of the world, the US included, China had already started to regain control and continued their illegal actions the South China Sea”; “Given China’s actions, from blatantly building experimental stations to conducting drills to retaliate against the is clear that China has not shifted its attention away from the South China Sea”.

These actions run completely counter to Beijing's statements to the ASEAN and the world about peace and stability. This is cause for concern among observers of Southeast Asia in general and the South China Sea in particular as Beijing authorities may have more new and aggressive activities in the South China Sea in the near future.

The Covid-19 pandemic also resulted in the postponements of many international forums, ranging from the ASEAN-US Summit (scheduled in the US) to the annual ASEAN Summit (scheduled in Hanoi this April) and the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (where politicians and scholars regularly voice strong criticism of China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea). According to some analysts, Beijing has soon predicted that their actions in the South China Sea will be overlooked and they can avoid the usual criticism and judgment at international conferences and forums, due to said delays.

Researchers warn that Beijing’s goal of monopolizing the South China Sea remains consistent and unaltered; therefore, the global pandemic would not suspend Chinese expansionism. On the contrary, seeing this as a “golden opportunity” to fulfill its ambitions, China will increase pressure in the South China Sea.

Not only does the corona virus take the lives of the tens of thousands of people and threaten the livelihood of millions across the world, it will also affect regional peace and stability, including the South China Sea.

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