The impact of the COVID - 19 pandemic has already changed healthcare structures and economies around the world but one of the many latent outcomes of the epidemic is upon international relations and ongoing disputes. In many cases the crisis has significantly displaced power structures in rather high-tension regions. One such case is the long going dispute of the South China Sea.
The South China Sea dispute with an already complex history involving many claimant parties has seen wide-reaching shifts from status quo due to the pandemic. This is primarily due to the different stages in which the pandemic affected the involved parties with China as one of the key players reaching its peak rather early. The People’s Republic of China has come under the spotlight for aggressively pursuing its objectives in the South China Sea. It has boosted its efforts to assert dominance through the demonstration of hostile foreign policy by increasing their naval capabilities in the contested waters.
As far as can be ascertained from these reports, the Chinese Navy’s surface ship unit was conducting drills to counter surface and air attacks. Although the drills addressed elements of electronic warfare, such as jamming, they do not seem to have been otherwise unusual. It was also reported that the US Navy aircraft carriers conducted flight operations, but there were no reports of special tactical operations. Nevertheless, what deserves attention on this occasion is the simultaneous presence of the US aircraft carrier task forces and the Chinese Navy fleet in such a small area.
In a telephone interview with US media, Rear Admiral James Kirk, the commanding officer of the Carrier Strike Group 11—aboard the USS Nimitz, one of the two aircraft carriers dispatched to the South China Sea—stated: “They have seen us and we have seen them.” This indicates the close proximity of the US aircraft carrier task force and the Chinese Navy fleet. According to US and Taiwanese media, it is extremely rare for both US and Chinese naval forces to conduct exercises in the same waters. This situation did not arise by chance. It seems that both sides intentionally held drills in close proximity.
This maritime show of force has grabbed international condemnation, and has potentially tarnished China's regional relations. The weakened state of its neighbours due to the pandemic hasn't deterred the Chinese strategy to aggressively pursue its regional objectives and challenge the US authority over the Indo-Pacific.
The presence of both naval forces in such a sensitive part of the South China Sea is a direct result of interactions between the two powers. In mid-June, multiple US media outlets reported that three US Navy aircraft carrier strike forces had been deployed in the Pacific Ocean. The US Navy has 11 aircraft carriers, but it is rare for it to launch three in the Pacific Ocean. This first such deployment in many years indicates the heightened sense of concern felt by the United States regarding aggressive behavior displayed by China. US tension is further heightened by the fact that China chose this timing to achieve its aims, when the US and other countries are focused on the battle with COVID-19.
The South China Sea dispute finds its roots in the Second World War making it one of the oldest and most complex active international maritime disputes involving close to a dozen players. The region has seen many military escalations over the years, the first of which dates back to the First Indo-China war in 1946. Tracing it back to the Second World War, the Japanese Empire controlled the islands and used the region primarily for military purposes, however, the Empire was forced to relinquish control post the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951. Following which the PRC laid several claims over the region eventually leading to the First Taiwan Strait Crisis between Communist PRC and Nationalist ROC in 1958.
The 1954 Geneva Accords which ended the First Indochina War, also gave South Vietnam control of the Vietnamese territories south of the 17th Parallel, which included the islands in the Paracels and Spratlys. Two years later the North Vietnamese government claimed that the People's Republic of China is the lawful claimant of the islands, while South Vietnam took control of the Paracel Islands. Fast forwarding to the 1970s, the dispute saw large scale changes in geopolitical power structures due to the Vietnam War, the conflict proved rather beneficial for Communist China as it helped them wrestle Yagong Island (under Paracel) and the Crescent group from South Vietnam using its military might. The government of the PRC wanted to prevent the Paracel islands from falling under the control of North Vietnam, which at the time was an ally of the Soviet Union. The PRC had fought a brief border war with the Soviet Union in 1969 and did not want to have a Soviet presence near its coast, which is why China resorted to "counterattack in self-defense". The United States, in the middle of détente with the PRC, gave a non-involvement promise to the PRC, which enabled the People's Liberation Army Navy to take control of the South Vietnamese islands.
Over the past six decades, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam have all occupied islands in the South China Sea. They have reclaimed land and built military bases on them to assert their sovereignty, and China's efforts on this front have been the most aggressive. According to the US government, since 2014 China has reclaimed more than three thousand acres in Ananza or Spratly Islands.
The satellite images of young Chui or fiery cross reef show that it was a sandbank in August 2014, but by June 2016, it had been transformed into a sea port with an airstrip. China says that its reclamation projects are to meet the civil and defence needs, but the US which has allies in the region has accused China of being a bully. It has been said that China is reaching for too far too fast by militarizing the islands, and in response the US has flown its Air Force jets over the Chinese controlled islands and sailed its warships near them, by what it calls the freedom of navigation exercises. The US has also conducted joint military exercises with Philippine Navy in the South China Sea. China in turn has accused the US of ratcheting up tensions in the region and between its neighbours.
In the year 2013, the Philippines filed arbitral proceedings against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and China refused to take part in the proceedings. Despite the tribunal ruling that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the South China Sea, China rejected the tribunal's ruling and ever since then the Philippines and other claimants have done little to challenge China's continued development of the islands that it controls. However, after all these decades the dispute remains unresolved over who rightfully owns these waters and the rich resources the lie beneath.
The Impact of COVID-19
China’s aims include strengthening its practical control in the South China Sea and, beyond that, seizing total control in the region. Even given the impact from COVID-19 on the capabilities of the US Navy, China still intended to demonstrate its presence in the face of the dispatch of the three aircraft carrier strike forces in the Pacific Ocean. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the US Navy to reduce the activities of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and other vessels, the media aligned with the Chinese Communist Party reporting that the US Navy had suffered major damage to its ability to project force. China apparently sensed an emerging power vacuum in the Pacific.
Based on this perception, China conducted military exercises in the South China Sea in April, and, by April 19, had established two new administrative divisions in the region. On April 11, China’s aircraft carrier, Liaoning, entered the Pacific Ocean, plying between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyakojima, passing southward through Taiwan’s eastern waters, and traveling via the Bashi Channel to enter the South China Sea. On April 13, a Chinese PLAN spokesperson stated that the Navy intended to normalize such maneuvers and drills going forward. China’s intention was to display the maritime predominance of its navy in the western Pacific Region, from the South China Sea to the so-called Second Island Chain stretching from Japan’s island holdings south of Honshu through Guam and south to Papua New Guinea.
Even in April, the US Navy was not unresponsive. On April 21, the US Navy announced the South China Sea deployment of the USS America, its latest amphibious assault ship, only recently stationed at Sasebo, Japan. Its arrival in the offshore regions of Malaysia was confirmed on April 22. The America can operate as an aircraft carrier, carrying around 20 F-35Bs. Liaoning carries between 18 and 24 planes; the new US vessel thus effectively has similar-level aviation strategic capabilities to the Chinese aircraft carrier.
As China does not actually intend to start a conflict with the US forces, the question of which power is dominant in the region depends on perspective. China widely reported that the US Navy’s aircraft carrier was immobilized, in an effort to proliferate the idea that China’s Navy had control in the region. Around April 16, in the same area, a Chinese survey boat turned up the pressure by navigating close to a survey ship belonging to the Malaysian state-owned petroleum company. China also held military exercises in the South China Sea in mid-June.
If China successfully plants the belief, at home and across Southeast Asia, that it has grasped effective control over the South China Sea, it will be difficult to overturn this perception. If conflict were to erupt, and the United States triumphed against China, it would provide a clear result, but as long as neither country has the intention to go to war, the United States can only exhibit an even stronger regional presence.
In late April, a frigate from the Australian Navy was dispatched for joint mobilization with the USS America. This demonstrated Australia’s role as a US ally and helped to undermine the impression to China or Southeast Asian nations that the US Navy’s presence had deteriorated in the South China Sea.
The United States subsequently applied still greater pressure. On July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.” Until now, the United States did not express its position regarding territorial disputes between other countries, making this an extremely unusual announcement. With territorial disputes, as with ideological confrontation, there is no compromise to be made. Pompeo’s statement suggested the willingness of the United States for a showdown with China in the South China Sea.
China, on the other hand, is conscious that the United States is increasing its presence, obstructing Chinese efforts to gain control in the South China Sea, and increasing its frustration. In particular, local commanders of the Chinese Navy who get their news from Chinese domestic media may gain the misunderstanding that they have the upper hand in the region. If the US Navy increases its activities in the South China Sea, there is the potential for an unintentional conflict to erupt with increasingly impudent Chinese military forces. It is evident that the Chinese leadership understands this possibility from the manner in which China is monitoring Japan’s response. China is gathering information on the likely Japanese course of action in the unlikely event of a Sino-American clash in the South China Sea. This suggests that China is taking the potential of military confrontation with the United States in the region seriously.
The Gap from perceived Normalcy
It is important for Japan to realize that China’s perception of what is normal differs from that of the United States and Japan. For the United States and Japan, the normality is the present, stable circumstances, and maintenance of the existing order. But China considers the expansion of its own influence an
d geographical boundaries to be normal. Ultimately, it is attempting to transform the international order to work in its favor. This gap in perception can explain the past errors in US policy toward China. The only way to halt China’s provocative behavior is through a demonstration of real power.
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Samuels, Marwyn (2013). Contest For the South China Sea. London: Routledge. pp. 55–65.
Yoshihara, Toshi (2016). "The 1974 Paracels Sea Battle: A Campaign Appraisal". Naval War College Review. 69 (2): 41–65.