COVID-19 Crisis: Indo-Pacific Remains Vulnerable to Chinese Adventurism

Sharan KA
April 26, 2020


Historically, the aftermath of pandemics has resulted in significant geopolitical disruptions. This time too, COVID-19 has some frightening forecasts. They range from instability in West Asia and North Africa to change in global supply chains. The US-China tensions are expected to re-escalate before the US elections in November. Despite so many imminent changes, China seems to remain as aggressive as ever in its power projection and force posturing, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. At a time when countries across the globe are fighting the pandemic, China seems unrelenting in its military adventurism in contested areas of the South China Sea. 

China has been working with steadfast determination to ensure that the vision of the PLA Navy (PLAN) becoming a global force by 2050 becomes a reality. The third commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Liu Huaqing, envisioned the same. In Chinese White Papers and President Xi Jinping’s speeches, China’s ambitions have been clearly defined. In a speech to his senior military officials, President Xi was quoted as saying, “we must adhere to a development path of becoming a rich and powerful State by making use of the sea.” 

Fishing (and more) in troubled waters

In mid-December 2019, Chinese vessels entered waters off the coast of northern Natuna islands, upsetting Jakarta, since the region happens to be Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. President Joko Widodo, in January, made it a point to personally visit one of these islands to send a message asserting his country’s sovereignty. The Chinese ambassador to Indonesia was also summoned for the same. The Chinese vessels only withdrew following these demarches. 

There have been reports that Chinese military aircraft have been carrying out anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea, as a response to the patrols carried out by US warships as part of its freedom of navigation operations in the area. China also conducted joint exercises on March 15 with Cambodia, upsetting some of the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members who are uncomfortable with the Chinese military’s presence in the region. In another fresh episode, three military planes belonging to China have been reported to fly over Taiwanese airspace since February, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry.  

The Malacca Dilemma

A constant worry that troubles China is the necessity for them to ensure that their interests are protected in the region, especially around the Strait of Malacca. The shipping routes are extremely vital to ensure oil imports from West Asia and Africa to China. The Kra Canal aiming to connect the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea might provide a breather in the future, but that seems like a distant dream. Oil and gas supply can be ensured from the northern Indian Ocean region (IOR) to China in very few ways. One of them being the pipeline from Myanmar that leads to Kunming. 

On the northern side of the South China Sea, which is contested, China has reportedly conducted the biggest extraction of natural gas from gas hydrates (by means of production and volume) in a single day. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources of the People’s Republic of China, it has been a “solid technical foundation for commercial exploitation”. The achievement is more emphatic because China had employed a horizontal well-drilling method to extract gas hydrates and mineral deposits at the bottom of the ocean. It is more outrageous, since the production went on from February 17 to March 18, right at the time when the world has been busy fighting the pandemic originating from China. Therefore, it is conclusive that the Chinese intend to tap the vast reserves of unexplored oil and gas deposits in the ‘nine-dash line’. This area covers almost 85% of the South China Sea and touches the waters of the northern Natuna Islands. 

Xi’s visit to Myanmar came as a part of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Myanmar. Apart from the deep sea-port in Rakhine, stalled infrastructure projects were given a push. This includes the strategically important railway linkage between south-western China to the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been vying for access to the Bay of Bengal for a while now, and the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) provides the perfect opportunity. China has further signed agreements to establish a special economic zone on the border, a new city project in Yangon. However, Myanmar has been exercising precaution before jumping in to welcome the investments proposed by China. 

Loosening the Noose

China has been regularly deploying its vessels in the IOR in the pretext of anti-piracy deployments, deep sea-exploration, securing access to sea line of communication to ensure timely oil and gas supplies, etc. China has been lending out billions to countries in South Asia as a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and China has been boosting the capacity of its naval base at Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. China has been working on building an “all-weather strategic partnership” with Iran, Russia, and Pakistan. In January this year, a joint exercise was conducted between China and Pakistan at Chabahar, a port that is being developed by India. The activation of the Quad among the US, India, Japan, and Australia is being viewed as a counter-response to China’s increasing footprints in the Indo-Pacific.  

Advancing the Su-30 squadron to Thanjavur is being seen as a means to more effectively counter China’s expanding grip in the Indian Ocean Region. Additionally, P8I planes belonging to the tri-services Command at Andaman and Nicobar have been deployed by India for monitoring activities in the ocean. So far, the Navy’s aircraft has detected seven warships belonging to the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean Region. Taking note of Chinese surveillance in the Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Navy has now announced that it intends to enhance submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean Region using the deep submergence rescue vehicles. 

The COVID-19 crisis can be an opportunity to display zero-tolerance for Chinese adventurism and aggression. As far as the power projection in the Indo-Pacific is concerned, China will continue to put its game on. A stronger role of QUAD in the Indo-Pacific is required, and most importantly, India and her partners need to be aware of the nature of Chinese adventurism and remain cautious as always in the region, and not be distracted in spite of a threat from a pandemic as deadly as COVID-19. 

*** The author is a postgraduate research scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). The views expressed in the article are personal ***