China asserts presence in South China Sea amid COVID-19 pandemic

Published on April 15, 2020

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Diksha Shandilya

The Korea Times – April 15, 2020

While the world is locked in a battle against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), for China business continues as usual in the South China Sea.

As per a Xinhua News Agency report March 20, Beijing recently launched two research stations on two of China’s large man-made islands – Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) and Subi Reef (Zamora). The research facilities, which are under the Integrated Research Center for Islands and Reefs of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), feature a number of labs on ecology, geology and environment.

These facilities can support scientists in field navigation, sampling and scientific research in the Spratlys, one of the major disputed archipelagos in the South China Sea. The CAS aims to solve science and technology problems in the sea and believes that these facilities will contribute to the emergence of a maritime community with supposedly shared resources in the region.

Morality is an instrument of power to gain alliances and become the world’s hegemon. This was one of the key arguments made by Chinese foreign policy expert Yan Xuetong in his book, “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers.”

This argument aptly applies in today’s grand struggle for hegemony between the United States and China. Great power comes with great responsibility. Superpowers have been responsible for bringing and maintaining peace, prosperity and harmony in the history of mankind.

At a time when there is a global crisis, a pandemic which has already taken over one hundred thousand lives, it calls for great powers like the United States and China to play a leading role for global interdependence, collective and multilateral arrangements to tackle the crisis.

China launching the two new research centers at a time when the world is battling COVID-19 pandemic is perplexingly intriguing. Many around the world may have thought that the ongoing coronavirus would distract Beijing from the maritime flashpoints.

However, this seems to be far from the case. The People’s Liberation Army is racing way ahead to be combat ready despite the widespread of the deadly disease. The recent development shows that China remains consistent in its aggressive activities in the disputed waters.

Beijing’s assertion on its maritime sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea, at this juncture, sends an alarming signal to other claimant states, and perhaps a sense of frustration to the wider international community.

Many would have wanted to see China paying an unreserved attention to biomedical development research to tackle the novel virus since it originated from the city of Wuhan in China.

On the other hand, the recent development is a testament that China wants to control virtually the entire South China Sea which is a critical shipping route rich in fish, oil and gas reserves, as well as a vital sea-lane through which over $5 trillion of global trade passes every year.

It is no secret that in recent years, Beijing has stepped up naval patrols and even constructed man-made or artificial islands. In July 2016, an international tribunal at The Hague ruled that China’s historical claim of the nine-dash line has no legal basis.

China, however, ignored the ruling and continues its activities. Beijing is engaging in a salami-slicing strategy by gradually transforming reefs and rocks into outposts equipped with harbors, airstrips, missile shelters, communications facilities, and expanding its ability to monitor its rivals’ activities in the disputed waters.

However, China does not want to invade or colonize any of the Southeast Asian states for different reasons, nor does China want a war with any of the claimant states. Rather, Beijing is discreetly conveying a message that its new superpower status brings with it a return to its regional dominance.

At the same time, China wants to be seen as a peace-loving nation and needs friends, not foes, due to its developmental projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. It is clear, however, that China wants a solution to the South China Sea dispute primarily through bilateral negotiation with individual claimant states.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are engaging in talks over a Code of Conduct (COC) aimed at reducing tensions in the sea. At this time, China has three priorities.

First, the COC should not be covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Second, joint military exercises with countries outside the region must have the prior consent of all parties to the agreement. Third, no resource development should be conducted with countries from outside the region.

However, ASEAN cannot accept these demands primarily for three reasons. First, doing so would disprove the UNCLOS ruling on China’s nine-dash line claim. Second, China’s demands are aimed at curtailing the regional influence of the U.S. and Europe. Third, if the demands are accepted, then it would be very difficult to tackle China’s assertiveness in the region.

There is a huge trust deficit and lack of confidence among the claimant states because of the nature of their territorial and maritime resource disputes. There is also a great deal of concern about possible regional uncertainties stemming from the rise of China.

In recent years, each side has tended to suspect the worst of the other and demonize each other as having the most offensive and aggressive intentions. Each claimant state portrays its own actions as defensive, necessary and justifiable.

China, meanwhile, is rapidly modernizing its military and technological advances in the disputed waters. And these advancements are not taking a back seat even at a time when humanity is battling against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is a political scientist, associate professor, assistant dean and executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. He is the author of four books, including “The Politics of South China Sea Disputes.” Diksha Shandilya is a research intern at CSEAS and a bachelor’s student in the university.

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