Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea amidst the pandemic

South China Sea amidst the pandemicEver since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan, China in late 2019 and early 2020, researchers have warned that Beijing authorities would increase their belligerent activities in the South China Sea for the post-COVID-19 period. Such warning has come true, as Beijing has repeatedly committed aggressive actions in the South China Sea in the last month, while the pandemic rages on all over the world.

Beginning a series of recent activities, Chinese maritime vessels had sunken Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands, causing public outcry. In spite of the focus on combatting the COVID-19 epidemic, the US State Department, the Department of Defense, and Senators, have strongly protested against Chinese maritime vessels’ such aggressive actions against Vietnamese fishing boats. The Philippines also strongly condemns such inhumane actions by Chinese maritime vessels, despite the need to enlist China’s support.

Following the sinking of Vietnamese fishing vessels, China sent the Liaoning carrier strike group into the South China Sea to conduct military exercises and to scare off neighboring countries. Afterwards, China brought in the Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship as well as other maritime and militia vessels (which have invaded Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in 2019) so as to operate within the waters of countries along the South China Sea.

The Haiyang Dizhi 08 geological survey ship group is currently conducting surveys in the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of Malaysia. On April 18, 2020, the US State Department had condemned China’s bullying; expressing concern over China's repeated provocative actions aimed at offshore oil development by other countries in the South China Sea; demanding that China stop these acts of bullying and avoid further provocative and destabilizing activities.

Besides the aforementioned aggressions, China also lurks under the pretense of "scientific" activities to enhance its presence in the South China Sea. On April 15, 2020, the Tan Kah Kee Research Ship of Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China, left Xiamen for the South China Sea to conduct surveys, sampling, deploying and salvaging equipment for long-term observation in the South China Sea. The vessel, of 77.7 m long and 16.2 m wide, with a maximum speed of nearly 26 km/h, carries 23 Chinese researchers onboard.

In March 2020, China's No. 1 Detective Ship carrying 60 Chinese scientists and a manned submarine named the Deep-Sea Hero, capable of diving at a depth of 4,500 meters, undertook an expedition of 20 days in the South China Sea. In the same month, China put into operation two research stations on Subi Reef and Firery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands. These two research stations, under the Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), include numerous laboratories on ecology, geology, and the environment.

Jay Batongbacal, Director, Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, University of the Philippines, Philippines, accused Beijing of using maritime scientific research (MSR) to strengthen China's "excessive rights" in the South China Sea and "trying to develop and project maritime power". Batongbacal warned that Beijing could conduct deep-water research in the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf of other countries in the South China Sea. “China’s past record of unilaterally conducting MSR even in the jurisdictional waters of other South China Sea littoral states” may constitute a new threat to countries along the South China Sea.

On April 18, 2020, Chinese media blatantly reported that the State Council of China had announced the establishment of a so-called "Xisha District" based in Woody Island, which governed Paracel Islands, the Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha Islands) and surrounding waters; "Nansha District" has its headquarters located in Firery Cross Reef overseeing the Spratly Islands and the surrounding seas. "Xisha District" and "Nansha District" are under the so-called "Sansha City", the "administrative unit" that China unilaterally established in 2012 to manage "Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha".

On April 19, 2020, the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People's Republic of China arbitrarily released the so-called "standard names" of dozens of islands and undersea entities in the South China Sea (25 islands, reefs and 55 geographical features). In addition to unilaterally naming these entities, China also defined the longitude and latitude of the islands, reefs and features. Many of these islands and features lie in the western part of the South China Sea, alongsideChina’s "cow's tongue line", which had been rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Beijing's absurdity even touches shoals located deep within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, which is less than 60 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast or 50 nautical miles from the country’s baseline.

So far China has shown no evidence of the administrative system for the waters it claims. The establishment of these two districts, as well as the announcement of new names for entities in the South China Sea, are part of China's plan to create its own "evidence" of administrative control over the South China Sea. Earlier, on April 17, 2020, China sent the United Nations a diplomatic note opposing Vietnam's "invasion and occupation" of the Spratly Islands and reefs. This is Beijing's latest step to bolster its so-called "legal record" for its illegal claims in the South China Sea.

Observers are paying close attention to the aforementioned moves in the South China Sea and offering analysis of Beijing's goals and calculations as they continually engage in these new aggressive actions:

First, Beijing is taking advantage of a time when the whole world is dealing with a global pandemic, in order to strengthen its presence and realizing its ambition to monopolize the South China Sea. This is a long-standing pattern for Beijing authorities, as evident when they took over Paracel Islands in 1974 or other reefs within Spratly Islands in 1988, both during periods of hardship for Vietnam.

Second, Beijing has calculated that amid a pandemic, international media would mainly report on the epidemic situation and public opinion, with little attention paid to the South China Sea situation. Therefore, China's actions will be less criticized than under normal circumstances. China believes that due to the epidemic situation, ASEAN conferences and other regional and international conferences would have to be postponed, leaving no public forum to condemn their aggression.

Third, as negotiations with ASEAN countries on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) is underway, Beijing wants to gain some advantages in the field to continue to pressure ASEAN.

Fourth, the rulers in Beijing are being condemned by both the world and their own people for refusing to disclose information about the epidemic. There are even skeptical opinions on the disease’s origin. As such, Beijing authorities have stepped up aggressive activities in the South China Sea to draw public attention away.

Fifth, Beijing believes that while four out of the five UN Security Council countries - UK, France, the United States and Russia - are busy dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic at home, it can be considered an opportunity for them to impose their jurisdictions in the South China Sea. Bearing that calculation, China - the only remaining country in the Security Council –has taken advantage of a time when the other four members of the UNCSC and other UN agencies are distracted to intensify aggressions and promote their irrational claims in the South China Sea.

China's continuing aggressive activities in the South China Sea for over a month are evident of the unlawfulness, malicious and expansionary nature of those in power in Beijing. Since China was the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic that has since caused tens of thousands of deaths, it should have focused on coordinating with other impacted countries to overcome the global disaster, but instead, Beijing authorities had taken advantage of the turmoil to continue its aggression towards neighboring countries.

It is indeed a shame for a great country, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Beijing should have made practical contributions to maintaining stability and peace, but it is they who are the troublemakers, jeopardizing regional peace in general and the South China Sea in particular.

Recently, China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea have reminded countries in the South China Sea to be constantly vigilant in order to protect their territorial sovereignty and national interests against China’s ambition to monopolize the South China Sea, even in the face of such terrible threat from the COVID-19 pandemic.