China's ploy to leverage pandemic for East Sea gains unsuccessful: experts

By Viet Anh   April 27, 2020 | 06:00 pm PT
China's ploy to leverage pandemic for East Sea gains unsuccessful: experts
U.S. and Australian warships conduct a drill at the East Sea on April 18, 2020. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.
China might expect a weaker response to its actions in the East Sea amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but experts warn against such expectations.

"Beijing is simply exploiting ASEAN countries’ preoccupation with the pandemic in the hope that its actions will provoke little or no reaction, thereby further strengthening its hold in the South China Sea," Collin Koh Swee Lean, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said about China's recent actions in the East Sea.

In Vietnam the South China Sea is known as the East Sea.

China announced the establishment of what it calls "Xisha District" and "Nansha District" in so-called "Sansha City" on April 18 to manage Vietnam's Paracel and Spratly Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and surrounding waters.

On April 14 Chinese survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 was spotted around 158 km off Vietnam's coast, inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It then followed exploration vessel West Capella belonging to Malaysian state oil company Petronas after entering Malaysia's EEZ. 

A Chinese vessel also sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel with eight men on it in the Woody Island area, part of the Paracel Islands, on April 2.

China's actions did not go unnoticed however. 

Vietnam strongly denounced China's establishment of the so-called Xisha and Nansha districts on April 19, and called on it to reverse its wrongful decisions and respect Vietnam's sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Vietnam also said it is closely monitoring the situation in the East Sea following reports that the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escort vessels had entered its EEZ. 

Vietnam also said China has caused loss of property to and endangered the lives and legal rights of Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracel Islands, and demanded compensation for the boat it sank.

Several other countries have also responded to China's actions. The Philippines expressed concern on April 8 after the Chinese vessel sank the Vietnamese fishing boat, warning that such actions could erode trust between Beijing and other countries in the region.

The U.S., Australia and Japan have also voiced dismay. 

On April 6 the U.S. expressed serious concern over China sinking the Vietnamese vessel and called on it to stop its "bullying behaviors." 

Australia joined the U.S. Navy in a drill in the East Sea this week "in support of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region," while its foreign minister, Marise Payne, said on Thursday she was concerned about China's disruptive activities in the East Sea. 

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on Tuesday voiced concern over China's establishment of Xisha and Nansha districts.

"The rather strong statements coming out of Canberra and Washington, accompanied by their navies showing their flag in the vicinity, would suffice as a pretty robust response [to China's actions]," Singaporean analyst Lean said.

Robert Ross, an associate at Harvard University's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said the U.S. had to send the ships because it could not allow China to use its navy without an American response, and sending warships to the East Sea was to show that the U.S. Navy still maintains a strong presence in the area.

China's game plan

As the world combats the Covid-19 pandemic, which has reached 210 countries and territories so far and killed over 200,000 people, China continues to intimidate and harass in the East Sea. 

This behavior is "part of a long-term pattern," Gregory Poling, senior fellow at the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the U.S., said.

"China was undertaking similar actions before Covid-19. But it is particularly outrageous to see that kind of behavior continue when its neighbors are struggling to mitigate a pandemic that is partially Beijing’s fault.

"China would continue to harass new oil and gas exploration and all fishing activities by its neighbors until it becomes too risky and expensive for Southeast Asian civilians and governments to do anything without China’s approval."

Concurring, Ross said China wants to normalize its activities in the East Sea because it wants to be able to do whatever it wants in the waterway and have it be normal and regular. 

Evidently, it sent the Haiyang Dizhi 8 into Malaysia's EEZ without any reason, repeating the same thing it did to Vietnam last year, to make it a normal and routine activity.

"The Chinese understand that [such activities] will be resisted in the short term," Ross said. 

"But over the longer term, [such activities] will have to be accepted by the region, it believes. So, they will no longer be controversial."

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said China has also begun to mute references to the so-called nine-dash line at the East Sea despite it having not abandoned its claims. 

It is China's new strategy to take control of the sea, he said.

"China now bases its claims on the ‘four shas’ (Xinsha, Nansha, Dongsha and Zhongsa) and uses a vague term like ‘relevant waters in the South China Sea’." 

Dongsha refers to the Paratas Islands and Zhongsa to the Macclesfield Bank.

Further pressure

While China does not want to escalate conflicts in the East Sea, it wants to put pressure on other East Sea littoral countries to remind them "the Chinese Navy is getting stronger, its Coast Guard is getting bigger, and the region must adjust to the rise of China," Ross said.

Thayer said China would pursue two-pronged diplomacy toward Vietnam and other ASEAN countries, responding with strong political and diplomatic pressure to any actions or statements that it views as undermining its claim to ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the East Sea while pressing its "face mask diplomacy" in response to the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

"In these circumstances, I think the possibility of China initiating unilateral escalation in the South China Sea is low."

Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at U.S. government-funded think tank RAND Corporation, said the situation in the East Sea would only undergo a drastic change when something like "a declaration of a South China Sea air defense identification zone" or "permanent stationing of fighter aircraft on Spratly bases" occurs. 

China is however very likely to continue conducting patrols and exercises there, he added.

Peter Layton, visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, said China could become even more aggressive in the East Sea later this year if the U.S.'s domestic troubles over the Covid-19 pandemic increase. 

Its aim is to "flex its military muscle at a time when the U.S. is distracted politically."

Lean said Vietnam needs to keep maintaining negotiations for the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC) to "remind China of its actions in the South China Sea."

Ross said despite the possibility that China could influence negotiations for the CoC, if an agreement is reached, there would be less uncertainty in the region and ASEAN member states would also feel more confident in dealing with China.

Vietnam, as this year's ASEAN chair, has given out a reassuring statement to China following an ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in February by saying it did not want ASEAN to have to choose sides, and that it would not try to promote or encourage ASEAN to side with America against China, he pointed out. 

Such a message also falls in line with policies by other ASEAN member states, with countries like the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia saying they do not want to take sides in the U.S.-China rivalry, he added.

"There is an opportunity [for Vietnam] to build a consensus within ASEAN about how to respond to the growing US-China competition. That would be a major contribution to ASEAN."

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