China’s devious move under cover of virus
As outbreaks debilitate the US navy, there are fears China may be using the coronavirus pandemic as cover for asserting control over the South China Sea.
A Vietnamese fishing boat has been rammed and sunk. Military aircraft have landed at its artificial-island fortresses. And large-scale naval exercises has let everyone know China's navy is still pushing the boundaries, hard.
Meanwhile, the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group has retreated from the contested waterway in an unscheduled return to Guam - with hundreds of cases of COVID-19 on board.
China's Peoples Liberation Army knows this presents an opportunity.
"The outbreak of COVID-19 has significantly lowered the US Navy's warship deployment capability in the Asia-Pacific region," an article on its official website declares.
The website insists not a single one of its soldiers, sailors or pilots had contracted COVID-19. Instead, the crisis had served to strengthen the combat readiness and resolve of the Chinese military.
That has international affairs analysts worried that even a short-term withdrawal of US and international from the East and South China Seas could give Beijing the opportunity it has been waiting for.
"I think China is exploiting the US Navy's coronavirus challenges to improve its position in the South China Sea by giving the appearance it can and will operate there at will while the US is hamstrung," former Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Centre director Carl Schuster told CNN.
The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat last week has South-East Asian nations fearful of a new Chinese push into their territories.
The boat sank near the Paracel Islands in the northern South China Sea. China and Vietnam both claim the islands. China attempted an invasion in 1974.
Beijing insists the small wooden Vietnamese fishing trawler deliberately rammed its large steel coast guard ship after being intercepted in Chinese waters.
Vietnam says the trawler was operating legally in its own waters when it was rammed by the Chinese vessel.
What a blatant lie. How could a wooden trawler intentionally ram the steel-hulled coast guard ship, suicide mission?— HaiDo80 (@HaiDo80) April 4, 2020
How can the international public trust such a spokesperson and her establishment? https://t.co/fFbCeln6qD
The fishing boat's eight crew was rescued by the China Coast Guard ship. But two accompanying fishing boats that attempted to assist in the rescue were detained.
The clash has context.
The US supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt visited Vietnam in March. It was only the second such visit by such a prominent ship since the end of the Vietnam War.
Beijing now wants Hanoi to know "it has cozied up to the US at a time when the US is not in a position to respond to Chinese actions," Schuster says.
Thanks to 🇵🇭 for strong statement to raise "deep concern over the reported sinking on 03 April 2020 of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the South China Sea".— HaiDo80 (@HaiDo80) April 8, 2020
"Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it." https://t.co/I8KtqOX9jO
But the act may have backfired. The Philippines joined its ASEAN allies in condemning the sinking, emphasising the damage to trust.
Vietnam has lodged a protest with Beijing, demanding its military Coast Guard be "strictly disciplined" after it had "hindered, rammed and sunk" the fishing vessel.
The US State Department has taken Beijing to task over the sinking.
"(This is) the latest in a long string of PRC (People's Republic of China) actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea," a statement reads.
"We call on the PRC to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea."
Source - World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins, other media
The USS Theodore Roosevelt and its demoted captain, are not the only high profile military casualties of the pandemic. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier is also reporting cases on-board as it undergoes maintenance in Japan.
As the virus spreads through the ranks in South Korea and Japan, the Pentagon has ordered all troop movements be suspended worldwide. Training exercises have been suspended, as has scheduled holiday leave to the United States.
But the US Pacific Command has been attempting to maintain its presence.
The destroyer USS McCampbell passed through the Paracel Islands on March 10. Beijing called this "provocative" as it hadn't sought permission to traverse the international waters.
Then the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier strike group and the USS America amphibious assault group conducted joint exercises there on March 15.
Its ability to sustain these "freedom of navigation" exercises is now unclear.
The Theodore Roosevelt is in quarantine.
The Ronald Reagan is supposed to be available, but it is undergoing repairs.
The closest US supercarriers are deployed to the Persian Gulf, staring down an increasingly belligerent Iran.
#USNavy Vice Adm. William Merz, commander of @US7thFleet, addresses the crew and answers questions from Sailors aboard #USSTheodoreRoosevelt as part of a visit to assess and support the ongoing #COVID19 recovery efforts for the crew. pic.twitter.com/9CzMGo5UoD— U.S. Pacific Fleet (@USPacificFleet) April 9, 2020
Beijing has been quick to exploit the US aircraft carrier troubles.
"Training for war preparedness will not be stopped even in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic, and the training of carrier-based fighter pilots must continue," the Global Times reported.
"An aircraft carrier is a large warship with many people concentrated in its cabins, making it vulnerable to infectious diseases. Being able to successfully conduct related missions indicated that the Liaoning has done a great job in controlling the epidemic."
The PLA says it now expects an increase in US military air traffic over the South China Sea while pandemic-stricken ships are tied up in port.
"An increase in warplane deployment was expected, so it can maintain its presence while also gaining related intelligence," Beijing-approved military analyst Wei Dongxu told the Global Times. "With the drills, the Chinese military showed that it is capable of driving intruders and unfriendly priers away," its website declares.
BEATING THE DRUMS
Beijing certainly doesn't see the pandemic as an obstacle to its territorial ambitions. The first industries to be revived in the city of Wuhan after the lockdown was lifted are reportedly its extensive military production lines.
It has also established two new 'scientific installations' on Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands. The islands are also claimed by the Philippines.
"The Chinese People's Liberation Army's determination, will, and ability to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity will not be shaken by any force or disturbed in any way," a ministry of defence spokesman said.
While China is helping others in our fight against the pandemic, the US is sending aircraft and vessels frequently to the South China Sea, violating China's sovereignty. We urge the US to put the priority on the outbreak response at home. pic.twitter.com/32WiHIRywf— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) April 7, 2020
To that end it has also embarked on a series of high-profile live-fire exercises in the contested region. Warships have fired missiles. Combat aircraft have surged through the skies. Its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, has been in the thick of it.
It's part of a message repeated almost daily on China's state-run news.
"The drills showed the Chinese PLA Navy can effectively control and safeguard the waters as it continues to enhance its combat capabilities," the Global Times reads.
South #China Sea: Routine operation of transport #aircraft in the #SouthChinaSea could indicate that the #Chinese #military is hardly affected by the #COVID19 crisis. #IMINT #VISINT #DEFENSE #intelligence #ISI #AI #Airforce pic.twitter.com/phbKFELm0k— ImageSat Intl. (@ImageSatIntl) March 29, 2020
China insists almost the entirety of the 3.4 million sq km sea between Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia belongs to it. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia - and other bordering countries - disagree. As does the international court of arbitration.
Beijing rejected the rulings and has been accused of using its growing military and economic influence to compel surrounding nations to surrender their claims.
Meanwhile, Beijing is not attempting to hide that it sees the pandemic as an opportunity.
"When fighting an intense battle, does anyone think of how much prize they will get after the war? The most important thing is doing your best and racing against time to achieve the final victory," foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said last week.
Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chierfs of Staff, US Army General Mark Milly, warned the pandemic was not an opportunity opponents should attempt to exploit.
"I wouldn't want any mixed messages going out there to any adversaries that think they can take advantage of an opportunity, if you will, at a time of crisis. That would be a terrible and tragic mistake if they thought that.
" we are ready today, we'll be ready tomorrow. And we will adapt ourselves to be able to operate within a COVID-19 environment. We're already doing that."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as China's devious move under cover of virus