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As Covid-19 continues, is China exploiting the distraction in the South China Sea? Only if you believe US propaganda

2020-05-07 18:51:43       source:NISCSS

Apirl 28, 2020 

A swell of China bashing over its behaviour in the South China Sea during the Covid-19 pandemic has become evident of late. Yes, China has continued its activities in the area. But so have other claimant countries and their contractors. More importantly, so has China’s No 1 accuser and strategic competitor – the United States.


As one prominent China critic put it: “A storyline has developed over the last few weeks suggesting that China is taking advantage of global distraction during the pandemic to increase its assertiveness in the South China Sea … [But] China hasn’t changed its behaviour at all in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”


He added: “If anything has changed, it is that continuing [these activities] in the middle of a pandemic leaves observers more scandalised than they otherwise might be.”


It is unrealistic to expect China to suspend its activities while others proceeded apace. Criticising it for not doing so is to set up a straw man.

Chinese vessels have indeed been involved in several incidents during the pandemic. The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in China-claimed waters off the Paracel Islands served as a lightning rod for China critics, who lumped this incident with many others.


A major stimulus was the April 6 US State Department statement that said it was “seriously concerned” and that the “incident is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims”.


But, first, it is unclear who was at fault. Vietnam claims China’s surveillance vessel rammed and sank its vessel while China said the boat refused to leave and then collided with a Chinese vessel after turning sharply.


Of course, if China’s coastguard vessel had not pursued the fishing boat, the collision would not have occurred. But the vessel was near China’s administrative capital for the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Fishing off this island is extremely provocative. This does not justify the sinking but it provides context. If Vietnam continues sanctioning such behaviour from its fishing fleet, more incidents are inevitable.


Moreover, the China-Vietnam dispute over the Paracels is distinct from China’s claims over the Spratlys and separate from its “nine-dash line” historic claim. China has occupied the Paracels for 45 years after seizing them from South Vietnamese forces in 1974. They are disputed only between China (including Taiwan) and Vietnam.


Yet the US State Department and China critics link this incident to China’s actions in the Spratlys and cite Beijing’s establishing of “new ‘research stations’ on military bases” – an effort planned and initiated before the pandemic. Moreover, China’s claim to high-tide features and right to build installations is as valid as those of other claimants.

Another brickbat is the “illegal” presence of China’s seismic survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, on an extended continental shelf jointly claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia. But this situation is more complex than the critics would have it.


Vietnam considers China’s claims on and actions in the Vanguard Bank area to be a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But China may have an UNCLOS-compatible claim to part of the area. It could argue that the Paracels are Chinese islands; their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf extending out to 350 nautical miles could encompass some of the northern part of the disputed area.


Until a boundary is determined, neither country should unilaterally proceed with exploitation. So China’s demand that Vietnam have Spain’s Repsol – and other foreign oil companies – cease their exploitation activities in the area, may be reasonable.


China’s claim on and alleged seismic exploration in Malaysia and Vietnam’s EEZ, and in their jointly claimed extended continental shelf, is another story and not supported by UNCLOS. On April 19, the US urged China to cease its “bullying behaviour” and refrain from “provocative actions” aimed at the offshore oil and gas developments of other claimant states.


But the Chinese vessels were only exercising their freedom of navigation – the same rationale the US Navy uses for its intimidating manoeuvres against China’s claims. Zubil Mat Som, head of Malaysia’s maritime enforcement agency, said: “We do not know its purpose but it is not carrying out any activities against the law”.


The Chinese vessel, which appeared to be carrying out a survey, was outside the EEZ claimed by Malaysia and Brunei from “legal” baselines. The joint Malaysia/Vietnam claim to the extended continental shelf seaward of that is just that – a claim.


Chinese fishing vessels and maritime militia congregating near the Philippines-claimed and occupied Thitu have also been criticised. Yet China also claims this feature and its 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, and its vessels have an equal right to be there.


Also criticised is the incident last December, when at least 63 Chinese fishing boats and two coastguard vessels entered Indonesia’s claimed EEZ off Natuna. Indonesia protested vehemently, and dispatched warships and jet fighters. China admitted its fishermen had taken fish from Indonesia’s claimed waters, and its fishing boats left – at least temporarily.


The US State Department statement concludes by urging China to focus on “supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction”.


But this is hypocritical. The US military is always watching, probing and, in China’s eyes, threatening it, from space, air and sea. During the pandemic, the Singapore-based littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords has prominently patrolled the South China Sea.


Moreover, the US Navy has continued its freedom of navigation operations. And its USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser, and USS America, an amphibious warship with fighters and helicopters, are operating in the area of the current China-Malaysia stand-off.


China has contributed, and continues to contribute, to incidents and increasing tension in the South China Sea. But those who single it out as the lone or main provocateur should be more balanced and not simply parrot and promote US political propaganda.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3081472/world-focuses-covid-19-china-exploiting-distraction-south-china-sea