Under Covid Cover, China Raises Regional Stakes

As other nations struggle to contain the virus China hatched, Beijing makes aggressive moves

With the world preoccupied with attempts to get the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic under control, Beijing has ignored complaints from littoral nations, steadily expanding its influence across the South China and East China Seas, increasing its overflights over Taiwan, ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat, declaring two new “districts” in the South China Sea, intensifying its pressure on Hong Kong and scrambling warplanes and ships in a bid to expel a US Navy destroyer from near the Paracel Island chain on April 28.

Tensions between the US escalated further on April 30 when the US sent a second craft into the Paracels to back up its commitment to freedom of movement in the sea.

China’s actions have finally begun to anger the littoral nations, including Malaysia after a Chinese survey ship intruded into its territorial waters earlier this month, and the Philippines, which issued two diplomatic protests to Beijing over its conduct in the South China Sea. In January, Indonesia scrambled fighter jets in response to Chinese fishing boats entering its North Natuna fishing grounds while Vietnam issued a joint claim with Malaysia over China’s intrusion into their respective maritime areas.

Under China’s President Xi Jinping’s increasingly aggressive foreign policies, Beijing has continued to ignore an historic 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that found China had "no historical rights" to an islet claimed by the Philippines, albeit with the willing acquiescence of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Secretary of State Teodoro Locsin Jr. China made the claim based on its self-declared and internationally disputed so-called "nine-dash line" map.  

Elsewhere in the South China Sea, Chinese dredgers have continued to reclaim land around often-tiny atolls and islets that under international maritime law confer no rights of sovereignty. In the Paracel islands, seized from then South Vietnam in 1974, more than 1,250 hectares of reclaimed land that, as the adjoining story notes, supports a small town and an airport capable of handling commercial passenger and military aircraft.

China’s actions have frustrated the United States as well, which has increased its so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONAPS) in the region, contributing to what is being called the worst period in relations between the two nations since Chinese leader Mao Zedong died in 1976.  In March the two countries exchanged tit-for-tat cutbacks in the number of journalists each could send to the other while the trade war initiated by US President Donald Trump and subsequent negotiations to resolve the issues continue at a glacial pace, with any resolution highly unlikely before the US presidential elections are held in November despite the damage the dispute is causing the US economy.

On April 22 in a press availability in Washington DC, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Chinese Communist Party of “exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior” through increased efforts to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and “exerting military pressure on Taiwan and coercing its neighbors in the South China Sea, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel.”

The fact is, however, whatever complaints Pompeo and the US makes are likely to have little effect on China’s strategy. US power has been eroding in Asia for more than a decade after President Barack Obama’s failure to decisively back up his so-called “pivot to Asia” agenda based on strengthening bilateral security alliances. Obama’s efforts were thwarted by a lack of commitment and funding by the Republican-controlled US Congress in a demonstration of the extent that US domestic politics now overwhelms foreign policy initiatives.

US influence in the region was further eroded by President Trump’s decision to void the TransPacific Partnership, an omnibus trade pact designed largely to keep China at bay.

Meanwhile, the 70-odd warships of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, which have protected the sea lanes in the eastern Pacific and the South China Sea in the interests of the US and allies for decades, is a mess. The supercarrier US Theodore Roosevelt remains laid up in Guam with more than 600 members of the crew testing positive for the coronavirus, apparently contracted from personnel flying on the ship who had not been assessed for the infection. The ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, was relieved of command for pleading for assistance for his ailing crew, although there are now strong indications he may be reinstated.

As the crew finally began to return to the ship after weeks of inactivity caused by the virus, the episode revealed how vulnerable military personnel are to such everts – a lesson that should have been learned from the huge loss of American troops in 1918 during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic in the closing months of the First World War.

The US Navy is increasingly politicized, short of personnel, many of them poorly trained and, according to an exhaustive 2019 study by the investigative website ProPublica, “worked to exhaustion.” The 7th Fleet’s ships were described as falling apart while its ship-keeping skills were exposed in two disastrous collisions in 2017, one when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a containership off the coast of Japan, killing seven navy crewmen, and another two months later when the USS John S. McCain turned directly in front of a 30,000-ton oil tanker, killing a further 10 sailors.

While the 7th Fleet has struggled, “Beijing has developed a sophisticated three-tier layer of maritime force projection in the South China Sea that major naval powers find effectively impossible to counter outside a direct conflict,” said Gavin Greenwood, a senior Asia analyst at G2 Global Risk. “The first layer consists of China's ubiquitous blue-hulled trawlers, unarmed but manned by fishermen who have received basic military training, that can be centrally directed to act in 'swarms' or singly against designated targets ranging from US Navy intelligence-gathering ships to Filipino or Vietnamese fishing boats or other vessels.”

The fishing trawlers, Greenwood said, “are backed by China's white hulled and lightly armed coast guard vessels, which in turn are supported – usually 'over the horizon' – by gray-hulled  PLA Navy warships and land or island-based aircraft.”

While the US dithers, Vietnam, Greenwood said, is reportedly developing its own version of the maritime militia, which could greatly increase the potential for a low-level confrontation involving a Chinese 'blue' boat escalating through misjudgment or design as  'white' and 'gray' vessels are sequentially mobilized in support.'

China has also finally managed to anger the Philippines through its claims to the Spratly Islands by establishing two districts to administer virtually all the South China Sea within its nine-dash line perimeter. This effectively places China’s jurisdiction on, or even over, the maritime boundaries of all the littoral South China Sea nations.

One result was that Philippine Foreign Secretary Locsin. who until now had demonstrated a notably supine attitude in the face of China’s territorial aggrandizement, earlier this month issued two diplomatic protests over Beijing’s assertion that the Spratlys were within Hainan Island’s jurisdiction despite being 1,160 km apart.

Locsin also charged that PLA Navy personnel had pointed a “radar gun” at a Philippine Navy vessel, declaring both actions “violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty.”

Whether this marks a turning point will be revealed. However, as Greg Poling, director of the US Council for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, noted in an interview with the Associated Press, “what’s new is the outrage Southeast Asian states feel over seeing this business-as-usual intimidation at a time when they’re struggling with a pandemic that is at least partly Beijing’s fault.”

China’s response to such complaints has been to “double down on nationalism, seemingly in-line with the broader ‘Wolf Warrior’ chest-thumping we’re seeing from authorities in Beijing recently,” Poling added in reference to a pair of jingoistic Chinese action films that have become a byword for a muscular Chinese foreign policy that is now adding to growing and widespread antipathy towards Beijing and the ruling communist party within the region and across the West.