While most of the world is preoccupied attempting to reign in the galloping COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing is using every opportunity available to flex its muscle internationally, including in the South China Sea.
While Beijing has been jetting protective medical equipment and specialist teams of doctors to Malaysia to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, its actions at sea have been described by some as nothing short of bullying.
A Reuters report on April 18 citing three regional security sources who could not be identified because they were not authorised to discuss the matter with the media, said a Chinese survey vessel had been “tagging” the ultra-deepwater drillship West Capella, which is part-way through a three well drilling contract for Petronas Carigali about 320 kilometers (about 200 miles) off the Malaysian coast, inside Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Haiyang Dizhi 8 and an escort flotilla of up to 10 Chinese vessels, including maritime militia and coast guard, had previously encroached in Vietnam’s EEZ the report said.
A Vietnamese warship was reportedly monitoring the activities of everyone else, with a Chinese destroyer named Wuhan also reportedly operating off the coast of Malaysia. Wuhan is the Chinese city where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is so far identified as first coming to the world’s attention.
Beijing’s grab for power
On the same day as Reuters report, Beijing announced that the Chinese State Council had approved the establishment of the Paracel island (Xisha) and Spratly Islands (Nansha) in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), as districts under Sansha city, a prefecture-level city of Hainan province.
The notice announcing the establishment of the new “districts” listed the standard names and coordinates of 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges, 55 of which are undersea geographic entities.
According to Beijing the new administrative districts were established as part of a “normal move for better scientific management and to safeguard territorial sovereignty”.
The proclamation brought about immediate howls of protests from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan, who all have overlapping claims and who see the move as a hostile act violating international law and sovereignty.
PLAN corvette acted with hostile intent
As regional leaders were coming to terms with Beijing’s latest audacious move, in the Philippines the commanding officer of the Armed Forces’ Western Command (WESCOM) was telling a media conference that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Corvette had acted with ‘hostile intent‘ when it pointed a ‘radar gun’ at the BRP Conrado Yap (PS39) last February 17.
Citing a report by Joint Task Force West and the PS39s commanding officer, chief Vice Admiral Rene Medina said that when intercepted and challenged by the Philippines Navy Pohang-class corvette, the Chinese ship had replied: “The Chinese government has imputable sovereignty over the South China Sea, its islands and its adjacent waters”.
Challenged a second time the ship allegedly repeated the response, continuing on its original course.
As the Philippine vessel approached, the Chinese warship had turned its gun control director (GCD) to point at the Philippine vessel. “The GDC can track targets and makes all the main guns ready to fire in under a second”, he said.
Protests follow ‘administrative annexation’
Not having any of Beijing’s explanation, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr., last week said in a tweet that two diplomatic protests were received by the Chinese Embassy in Manila at 5:17 p.m Wednesday (April 22).
Declining to give any more details, the first is believed to be in concert with those by Vietnam, Japan, and Malaysia over the April 18 virtual ‘annexation by decree’ of the Paracel and Spratly islands by Beijing, with the second in relation to the PS39 incident.
These latest incidents follow what Hanoi has called the deliberate ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel Islands by a Chinese coastguard vessel on April 2, leaving 18 fisherman floundering in the water.
The incident brought the immediate condolences and expressions of solidarity from the Philippines, who had one of its fishing boats sunk by a Chinese vessel last June leaving 22 fishermen in the water.
Beijing is also accused of stepping up military activity on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef), described as the most advanced of China’s bases in the South China Sea, with reports of ramped up air activity since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, including an airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C) operating from the base.
The US State Department said it was ‘concerned by reports of China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states’, while describing the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat as bullying.
‘In this instance [China] should cease its bullying behaviour and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilising activity’, it said in a statement.
Similarly condemning Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said it was vital all countries ease tensions so they can focus on combating COVID-19.
The comments echo those by the Philippines, with Malacañang last week saying that it is hopeful that China will fulfil its promise to refrain from reclaiming more areas of the West Philippine Sea, insisting that Manila will not relent on its rights in the disputed waters while busy addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
China not alone in South China Sea
While China might appear to be able to flex its muscles at will in the South China Sea, it’s not as straight forward as it might appear.
While these dramas have been unfolding the PLAN has not had the seas to itself. US and an Australian warships have been conducting their own exercises in the South China Sea, their activities bringing them not too distant from the Haiyang Dizhi 8.
According to US 7th Fleet the US amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) and USS Barry (DDG-52), along with the Australian warship HMAS Parramatta, have been conducting their own exercises near Malaysia.
Additionally, two US Littoral Combat Ships, the USS Montgomery (LCS-8) and USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS-10), currently operating out of Singapore, have also been active in patrolling the region.
Today, April 29, the navy said the USS Bunker Hill conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) transiting an unspecified feature in the Spratly Island chain, while on Tuesday (April 28) the USS Barry conducted a similar exercise in the Paracel Islands.
Appearing to have tamed the SARS-CoV-2 virus at home, an emboldened China appears to be now capitalising on the focus South China Sea claimants are putting in trying to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control at home to bolster its nine-dash line claim.
Feature photo China Military
- PH files 2 diplomatic protests vs Chinese aggression in West Philippine Sea (Inquirer.net)
- China Ups Ante in South China Sea with New Place Names, Districts (Benar News)
- Foreign minister: Malaysia firm in commitment to safeguard S. China Sea interests, seeks amicable solution to disputes (Malay Mail)
- China stole Philippines’ giant clams while Filipinos sat in court (video) (AEC News Today)
Between November 2010 and February 2012 she was a staff writer at Daylight Online, Nigeria writing on health, fashion, and relationships. From 2010 – 2017 she worked as a freelance screen writer for ‘Nollywood’, Nigeria.
She joined AEC News Today in December 2016.