While the rest of the world is still focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maritime Safety Administration of China's Hainan Province is holding military exercises near Vietnam's Paracel Islands, and has warned other vessels to avoid the area that Vietnam calls the East Sea. The drills started Wednesday (July 1) and will continue until Sunday.

Like shoppers rushing to purchase goods that will soon have a price increase. China appears to be ramping up its aggressive behavior before a code of conduct is agreed upon by other countries in the region. The difference is that China has the military power to do much as it pleases without having to pay much of a price unless countered by the United States.

China’s recent actions in addition to the drills include:

  • The creation of the so-called "Xisha" and "Nansha" districts on Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) Islands.
  • The sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel off the Paracel Islands.
  • It unilaterally issued a fishing ban and sent a ship to harass a Malaysian oil and gas exploration vessel.
  • It recently announced a vegetable farming project on Woody (Phu Lam) Island in the Paracels to strengthen its illegal claim.
  • It sent two diplomatic notes to the United Nations to make its infamous Four Sha claim that covers more water than the illegal Nine-Dash Line that alone covers the bulk of the South China Sea

Last Friday, in Hanoi, the 36th ASEAN Summit was held. Vietnam called for a resumption of negotiations between ASEAN and China on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, simply called the COC. Among the points of discussion were the two island groups.

China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam by force in 1974 and has been illegally occupying it since. Vietnam's Foreign Affairs Ministry has often said that all activities of parties in two areas without Vietnam's permission are invalid.

The ministry claims that Vietnam has a full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the islands, as well as rights over its waters under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Unfortunately, the negotiations for the COC are stalled during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing China to use the delay to continue its activities unfettered by any formal COC.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc acknowledged the standstill after a virtual summit last Friday of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders. The 2021 target date for the COC proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is now in jeopardy.

The ASEAN Regional Forum is scheduled for the summer and will include foreign ministers from China, the U.S., Russia, and Japan.

The annual East Asia Summit is held in the fall. It is an important forum for ASEAN to discuss the South China Sea with major nations, though it is unclear whether the leaders will be able to meet in person.

The foreign minister of Indonesia, an ASEAN member country, called for negotiations to resume quickly at a news conference last week. Minister Retno Marsudi said, “Traditional, face-to-face meetings are important for diplomacy."

Another ASEAN source spoke about the priority of dealing with COVID-19 and said, "In order to advance our diplomatic agenda, we need to first focus on curbing the pandemic within our own borders.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has 10 members
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has 10 members AFP / John SAEKI