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The South China Sea: A Rash Of China Bashing Breaks Out During COVID 19 Pandemic – Analysis

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Bashing China for its behavior in the South China Sea has certainly not receded during the pandemic.   To the contrary, there has been a recent rogue wave of it. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/16/covid-19-cant-freeze-vietnamese-geopoliticsforever/;https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2020/04/16/commentary/japan-commentary/opportunity-crisis-exploiting-global-disarray/#.XppfSchKiAQ;https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/southchinasea-challenge-04152020152316.html 

On 23 April, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo alleged that “Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction [of the pandemic], from China’s new unilateral announcement of administrative districts over disputed islands and maritime areas in the South China Sea, its sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel earlier this month, and its ‘research stations’ on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef.” https://time.com/5826202/mike-pompeo-south-china-sea-coronavirus/  

 Yes, China has continued its activities in the South China Sea during the pandemic.  So have other claimant countries and their contractors.  More important, so has its cardinal carper and strategic competitor – the United States.

As one prominent China critic, put it “A storyline has developed over the last few weeks that China is taking advantage of global distraction during the pandemic to increase its assertiveness in the South China Sea. ­ But China hasn’t changed its behavior at all in response to the coronovirus pandemic. If anything has changed it is that [continuing] these activities in the middle of a pandemic leaves observers more scandalized than they otherwise might be”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/the-south-china-sea-in-2020-what-to-watch/ Any expectation that China would practice unilateral self –restraint and suspend its activities there at this time while others proceeded apace was always unrealistic. To criticize it for not doing so is to set up a straw man to bash.

Chinese vessels have indeed been involved in several recent incidents during the pandemic.  But let’s examine these incidents one by one.

 The recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in China’s claimed waters off the Paracels served as a lightning rod for China critics who then lumped this incident with many others. A major stimulus for China bashers was the 6 April US State Department statement entitled “PRC reported sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea.”   https://www.state.gov/prcs-reported-sinking-of-a-vietnamese-fishing-vessel-in-the-south-china-sea/ It expressed “serious concern” and added that “this incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims” in the South China Sea.

First of all, it is not clear who was at fault for the collision.  Vietnam claims that China’s maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sank its vessel. https://www.rappler.com/nation/257389-philippines-reaction-china-sinking-of-vietnam-ship-south-china-sea But China said that “the boat had illegally entered the area [its waters], refused to leave, and then collided with a Chinese vessel after making dangerous maneuvers.”  By “dangerous maneuvers” it meant the Vietnamese vessel “suddenly turned sharply”. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/south-china-sea-and-the-coronavirus-new-vietnam-china-incident-spotlights-old-realities/  A video released by Vietnam seems to support China’s version. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhDTWofyGT4 

Of course if China’s coast guard vessel had not pursued the Vietnamese fishing boat the collision would not have occurred – this time.  The vessel was fishing near Sansha, China’s then administrative capital for both the Paracels and the Spratlys.  Fishing off this particular island in violation of China’s laws and claim to sovereignty is extremely provocative. This does not justify the sinking a violater’s boat — but it provides context as to why it happened.  If Vietnam continues sanctioning such behavior by its fishing fleet more incidents are inevitable.

Moreover, the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels and their attendant maritime zones is quite distant and distinct from its disputes with other claimants over the Spratly features, maritime space and the resources therein. China’s claim to the Paracels as its territory and its attendant maritime zones are separate from its nine-dashed line historic claim. The Paracels are a discrete island group in the northwestern South China Sea that China has occupied for 45 years after seizing them from South Vietnamese forces in 1974.   They –and their attendant maritime zones– are disputed only between China (including Taiwan) and Vietnam.

Yet the State Department statement and China critics linked this incident to China’s actions in the Spratlys “since the outbreak of the global pandemic”. They cite China’s establishing “new research stations on military bases”– an effort planned and initiated before the pandemic. Moreover China’s claim to high tide features there is as valid as that of the other claimants and like other claimants, it has the right to build such installations on its territory.

Another recent brickbat thrown at China is the “illegal” presence of its seismic survey vessel –the Haiyang Dizhi (Marine Geology)  8 in Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and jointly claimed extended continental shelf.  But this situation is more complex than the critics would have it. 

Vietnam considers China’s claims and actions regarding the Vanguard Bank to be a violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to which both are parties.  It points to the fact that China’s historic line claim that encompasses the area is not supported by UNCLOS and was rejected by an international arbitration panel. 

But China may have an UNCLOS – compatible claim to part of that area. It could argue that the Paracels belong to China, that they are legal islands, and that they generate a 200nm EEZ and a continental shelf extending out to 350 nm.  Those claims could encompass some of the northern part of the area in contention and necessitate the establishment of boundaries. Until a boundary is determined, the area is disputed and according to the Guyana-Suriname precedent, neither country should unilaterally proceed with exploitation. https://academic.oup.com/jids/article/10/1/160/5133609http://legal.un.org/riaa/cases/vol_XXX/1-144.pdf   In these circumstances, China’s demand that pending negotiations, Vietnam have Spain’s Repsol—and other foreign oil companies – – cease their exploitation activities in the area may be reasonable.

China’s claim and alleged seismic exploration on Malaysia and Vietnam’s EEZ jointly claimed extended continental shelf is another story.  https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3080510/south-china-sea-chinese-ship-haiyang-dizhi-8-seen-near  China’s claim to that area is not supported by UNCLOS. On 19 April, the U.S. urged China to cease its “bullying behavior” and refrain from “provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas developments of other claimant states”. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/19/us-says-china-should-stop-bullying-behavior-in-south-china-sea.html  But the Chinese vessels are so far only exercising their freedom of navigation —the same rationale that the US Navy uses for its intimidating maneuvers against China’s claims.  Zubil Mat Som, the head of Malaysia’s Maritime Enforcement Agency said “We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law”. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2020/04/18/chinese-and-malaysian-ships-in-south-china-sea-standoff-near-oil-field 

Although the Chinese vessel does appear to be carrying out a survey – it is in an area beyond Malaysia’s and Brunei’s 200 nm EEZ claim from ‘legal’ baselines.  The joint Malaysia/Vietnam claim to extended continental shelf seaward of that is just that- -only a claim – – yet to be approved by the international process for that. 

The critics have also re-raised the issue of Chinese fishing vessels and maritime militia congregating near Philippines-claimed and occupied Thitu. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/16/covid-19-cant-freeze-vietnamese-geopolitics forever/  But China also claims this feature and its 12 nm territorial sea and has equal right for its vessels to congregate there.

The critics also throw in the late December 2019 incident in which 63 Chinese fishing boats accompanied by three Coast Guard vessels entered Indonesia’s claimed EEZ off Natuna.   Indonesia protested vehemently and even sent warships and jet fighters to the area. https://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/01/05/20/indonesias-new-years-message-to-china-over-the-natunas-dispute-a-game-changerhttps://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3045458/indonesia-stands-china-who-will-follow-southeast-asiahttps://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/indonesia-china-dispute-natuna-12244200https://www.eurasiareview.com/15012020-will-indonesia-unite-asean-against-chinas-coercion-oped/  But China admitted that its fishers had taken fish from Indonesia’s claimed waters and its fishing boats left Indonesia’s claimed EEZ – – at least temporarily.  https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3046457/china-admits-fishing-indonesian-claimed-waters-south-china    

The State Department statement concluded by urging China to focus on “supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction” to take advantage of other states and Pompeo’s 23 April statement to Southeast Asian leaders repeated this allegation. 

But this is rather hypocritical.  The U.S. military is always “there”—watching, probing and, in China’s eyes, threatening it—from space, the air, the sea and under the sea. During the pandemic, the Singapore-based littoral combat ship U.SS Gabrielle Giffords has been proudly and prominently ‘showing the flag’ by patrolling the South China Sea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVMdoM2i3fk   

Moreover the US Navy has continued its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) that challenge with warships China’s claims to some low-tide features as sovereign territory as well as its prior permission regime for entering its territorial waters around some high-tide features it occupies.  https://news.usni.org/2020/01/28/uss-montgomery-conducts-first-2020-fonop-in-south-china-seadefpost.com/u-s-navy-destroyer-uss-mccampbell-sails-near-disputed-paracel-islands-in-south-china-sea/ The most recent was the 28 April FONOP by the USS Barry around the Paracels. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3081970/chinese-military-lashes-out-american-warships-intrusion-south China turned the tables on the US saying ” The act “was incompatible with the current atmosphere as the international community is fighting pandemic_ _” Further, the Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta has joined three US warships in the disputed area where they are “conducting interoperability exercises”. ;https://news.usni.org/2020/04/20/uss-america-now-steaming-near-south-china-sea-standoffhttps://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-china-security-malaysia/two-u-s-warships-in-south-china-sea-amid-china-malaysia-standoff-idUKKBN2230J4;https://news.usni.org/2020/04/20/uss-america-now-steaming-near-south-china-sea-standoffhttps://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-security-malaysia/australia-joins-u-s-ships-in-south-china-sea-amid-rising-tension-idUSKCN2240FS  

Malaysia– which in the US view should welcome this development—has expressed concern that the concentration of warships near their waters “has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.” https://flipboard.com/topic/asia/malaysia-calls-for-peaceful-end-to-months-long-south-china-sea-standoff/a-ShgUx7ToRrW1zMN6aS3E-A%3Aa%3A773461103-f7ab456d2c%2Freuters.com

China has contributed and continues to contribute to incidents and increasing tension in the South China Sea. But those who single out China as if it were the lone or main provocateur should be more balanced and not simply parrot and promote US political propaganda.

A much shorter and rather different version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/print/comment/opinion/article/3081472/world-focuses-covid-19-china-exploiting-distraction-south-china-sea

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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