China’s Belligerence in the South China Sea during the COVID-19 Epidemic

Binita Verma
May 14, 2020


Image Courtesy: Chindia Alert

Today, most of the countries in the world are combatting the novel coronavirus disease, which has took the shape of a pandemic in a very short span of time. This lethal disease is purported to have originated in the city of Wuhan in China at the end of year 2019.
Since it originated, there had been some strong warnings about the nature of the virus from within China which authorities inside China clearly ignored.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had announced COVID-19 as a pandemic, and warned the world to be aware and take safety measures for future emergencies that the virus might cause to countries and their citizens. While many followed this warning seriously, others seemed to take it for granted, which later turned out into a catastrophe as number of deaths only increased each day.

What is more shocking is that while the whole world is going through a very serious situation, especially by slowing economies and overwhelmed healthcare systems, China has not changed its foreign policy. In fact, it has gone on the offensive in strengthening its policies. This is most palpably evident from China’s activities in the South China Sea. In the recent past, China has aggressively dealt with both Vietnam and Indonesia, even sinking the former’s boat.

The relationship between China and Vietnam has long history, with more hurdles than an easy journey. The Chinese authoritativeness over the internal and even foreign decisions of Vietnam is far more than any other country. History shows that both countries have had rough bilateral relationship which has aggravated in recent times. Vietnam has often tried to resist China but all its efforts have been subdued by China by taking harsh and dominating actions against Vietnam.
The recent incident in the South China Sea in which China hit and sank a shipping boat of Vietnam had 10 fishermen on board who were rescued by nearby vessels after the incident. The incident occurred about 12 nautical miles southwest of an oil rig. The incident indicates that Beijing had deliberately tried to intrude in sovereign waters of the Vietnam. The incident has caused another disruption in building bilateral relationship between the two countries.

The entire month of April has witnessed tensions between Vietnam and China. On April 3 it started with the boat sinking incident, leading on to April 13 when China deployed its drilling ship very close to the Vietnamese Exclusive Economic Zone, and finally on April 18, when it officially announced that it has administrative control over the long disputed Spratley and Paracel Islands. As reaction of these series of steps by Beijing, Hanoi also raised its voice and stood against these agressions of China publicly. However, for a much smaller country like Vietnam it may not be sustainable to stand against China under the latter’s continued aggression.

Chinese aggressiveness is not a new phenomenon. Another country, Philippines approached the International Court of Justice in 2016 against China, when the latter tried to violate its maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea. The ruling was in favor of the Philippines because of its evidence based historical documents and arguments. However, China refuses to abide by the rulings of the ICJ and has continued the domination of the territories of land in the South China Sea for exploiting of the natural resources. Chinese and Malaysia also has had a dispute with China over energy blocks in the extended continental shelf. China today has territorial disputes with at least half a dozen countries in the South China Sea.

The United States has condemned the unlawful action of China against the Vietnamese boat and its other mischievous activities over energy exploitation and capturing of resources. The US is also faced with unprecedented loss of human lives in the country due to the pandemic. Its economy has also taken a huge toll. These loses may have distracted the US from its strategic focus in the Asia-Pacific. However, China seems not bothered about any of such concerns and has continued its dominant moves in the region. Even the US wants to limit growing Chinese intentions but the pandemic is likely to stop the US from getting into a war or scuffle with China.

It seems that China has a focused and planned set of actions for the South China Sea. This aggressive behavior of China is guided by only one intention, one that is intended to strengthen sovereignty and territoriality through military power, while the world remains distracted. While countries all over the world are actively busy in combatting this pandemic, China seems to be playing its cards shrewdly in put its foreign policy or nationalists agendas in place very efficiently.

*** Binita Verma is currently pursuing Ph.D. in the US Studies Program from the Center for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies(CCUSLAS), School of International Studies(SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) ***