China is pushing its South China Sea claims during the coronavirus pandemic

China is pushingAustralia and the United States this month hardened their position on the South China Sea, where Washington has accused Beijing of attempting to build a "maritime empire" in the potentially energy-rich waters, despite regional concerns.

The rivals have accused each other of stoking tension in the strategic waterway at a time of strained relations over everything from the new coronavirus to trade to Hong Kong.

A statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 13 was the first time the United States had called China's claims in the sea unlawful and accused Beijing of a "campaign of bullying".

Australia then followed suit, writing a letter to the United Nations in which it said China's territorial claims in the contested waters were "inconsistent" with international law.

"There is no legal basis for China to draw straight baselines connecting the outermost points of maritime features or 'island groups' in the South China Sea, including around the 'Four Sha' or 'continental' or 'outlying' archipelagos," it said.

Heated rhetoric has also been on the rise elsewhere in the region, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam challenge China's claim to about 90 per cent of the sea.

So, what exactly are the tensions over? And could they lead to full-blown conflict?

What are tensions in the South China Sea about?

China illustrates its claims in the South China Sea with a vague, U-shaped "nine-dash line" that includes swathes of Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, as well as the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands.

It also overlaps the EEZs of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

A tribunal at The Hague, based on a suit brought by the Philippines, ruled in 2016 that China has no "historic title" over the waters, and that its line was superseded by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Australia echoed this ruling in its letter to the UN this month, asserting that it rejected Beijing's claim to "historic rights".

"The Australian Government encourages all claimants in the South China Sea, including China, to clarify their maritime claims and resolve their differences, in accordance with international law, particularly UNCLOS," it said.

Why do the US, Australia and Japan care?

The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a thinktank, estimated in 2016 that a third of all global shipping passed through the South China Sea.

The sea is rich in oil, gas and for commercial fishing, which provides jobs and food for the region.

Analysts have argued that while the world's attention is focused on battling the pandemic, Beijing is taking the opportunity to assert itself regionally — namely in terms of its land borders with South Asia as well as in the South China Sea.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC earlier this year that nobody had predicted the current state of tensions when the Australian naval vessel HMAS Parramatta left home in February for a four-month deployment in South-East Asia.

"What wasn't expected at the time the ship left was that we would have such a tense situation emerging in the South China Sea and further north, with China really putting on a major military display that I think is all about trying to intimidate its neighbours as we come out of the coronavirus crisis," he said.

How have China's South-East Asian neighbours responded to its territorial claims?

Vietnam, frequently at loggerheads with China over the issue, is this year chairing the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

At a June 26 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam and the Philippines — China's most vocal challengers over the sea — warned of growing regional insecurity amid concern that Beijing was advancing territorial claims under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As China held military drills in the South China Sea this month, Vietnam said Beijing's actions were "detrimental" to its relationship with the South-East Asian bloc.

The United States simultaneously deployed two aircraft carriers to the area for what it said were pre-planned exercises.

In a blustery response to the Chinese drills, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said China would be "met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate", if the exercises encroached on Philippine territory.

That followed a surprise move by President Rodrigo Duterte — who had courted Beijing since taking office in 2016 — to suspend his decision to scrap a two-decade-old troop deployment agreement with the United States.

Last year, Chinese and Vietnamese vessels became embroiled in a months-long standoff in Vietnam's EEZ where a Chinese research vessel conducted a sweeping seismic survey of waters overlapping Vietnamese oil blocks.


In May, the same Chinese research vessel was involved in another month-long standoff with Malaysian ships in Malaysia's EEZ, close to where a drillship contracted by Malaysian state oil firm Petronas had been operating.

Chinese incursions happened 89 times between 2016 and 2019, Malaysia's Government said this month.

Indonesia has also begun to take a tougher stance. In January, Jakarta summoned China's ambassador and dispatched air and sea patrols after Chinese vessels entered Indonesia's EEZ around the northern Natuna islands.

The tensions have already affected Vietnamese oil production in the area, including operations controlled by Russia's Rosneft and Spain's Repsol.

"We're already seeing reduced appetite for oil and gas investment in Vietnam," said Andrew Harwood, research director at consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie.

How have Australia and its allies responded?

Five Australian warships joined the US and Japan in conducting military exercises in the Philippine Sea earlier in July that the Department of Defence called: "An important opportunity to exercise at sea with our close friends in support of our shared views of a prosperous, open [and] stable region."

A white paper released by the Japanese Government this month said that China had "relentlessly" pushed to "change the status quo" in the Asian seas, including sending vessels into Japanese waters around Japan-controlled disputed East China Sea islands, called Senkaku in Japanese. Beijing also claims the islands and calls them Diaoyu.

What is likely to happen next?

As China continues to show its appetite for expansionism in the region, its neighbours are scrambling to create new alliances and strengthen old partnerships.

In a move seen as critical to boosting security cooperation with the US, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds will fly to Washington for annual talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper this week.

This comes despite the number of coronavirus pandemic cases in the US crossing the 4 million mark.

Apart from national security and coronavirus, the two nations will also discuss China's activities in the South China Sea.

Political expert Stephen Nagy from the International Christian University in Tokyo earlier told the ABC, trilateral exercises between the US, Japan and Australia were a clear signal that China did not control the South China Sea.

And, he said, such exercises would continue, expanding to include other like-minded regional partners like India, who are looking to counter an ambitious China.

Dr Nagy said India was giving clear signals it was tilting towards the views of the US, Japan and Australia.

"India is facing pressure from China on its northern border," Dr Nagy said.

"And India has decided to push back and agree to an expanded [naval] exercise with US and Japan, and possibly Australia."

Excluded in the past, there are signs that Australia will now be invited to join the crucial Malabar naval exercises with India, US and Japan in November.

"By holding Malabar exercises and including Australia, India is sending a signal to partners such as US, Australia and Japan that it is willing to contribute to a rules-based order within the region," Dr Nagy said.

"It's willing to expand the ways it corporates and it's willing to push back against China, as China really does exploit this window of opportunity in the coronavirus pandemic chaos that many countries are experiencing."