KEY POINTS

  • The South China Sea remained a global hot spot with China continuing what most see as “bullying” behavior to its militarily weaker neighbors
  • The America, an amphibious assault ship, and the Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, entered contested waters off Malaysia
  • The vessels were accompanied by an Australian frigate, the Parramatta, as part of a previously planned operation

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the number 1 global news story of 2020, but that does not mean previous headlines disappeared. The South China Sea remained a global hot spot with China continuing what most see as “bullying” behavior to its militarily weaker neighbors.

The Asian waters may soon be getting even warmer because American warships have moved into the disputed waters. The America, an amphibious assault ship, and the Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, entered contested waters off Malaysia. The vessels were accompanied by an Australian frigate, the Parramatta, as part of a previously planned operation, according to defense experts.

Despite the “distractions” of the coronavirus health crisis, China maintained its practice of encroaching on the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and others.

The epidemic began to surge in January, but Beijing and the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) continued tangling with regional maritime enforcement agencies and harassing fishermen including several incidents in March and April:

  • In March, China opened two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines and others. The reefs were also equipped with defense silos and military-grade runways.
  • In early April, the Vietnamese accused a Chinese patrol ship of ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.
  • Last week, a Chinese government survey ship began shadowing the West Capella, a drillship conducting exploration activities off the Malaysian coast. The Chinese survey ship, called the Haiyang Dizhi 8, had previously tracked similar oil operations off Vietnam.
  • This past weekend (April 18-19), the Chinese government announced it had formally established two new districts in the South China Sea that included dozens of contested islets and reefs. Many were submerged bits of land that do not confer territorial rights, according to international law.

Peter Jennings, a former Australian defense official who was the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said, “It’s a quite deliberate Chinese strategy to try to maximize what they perceive as being a moment of distraction and the reduced capability of the United States to pressure neighbors.”

Another expert, Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii said, “It seems that even as China was fighting a disease outbreak, it was also thinking in terms of its long-term strategic goals. The Chinese want to create a new normal in the South China Sea, where they are in charge, and to do that they’ve become more and more aggressive.”

Using the pandemic and propaganda, China has been promoting its government as being superior to the United States, claiming in one military publication not a single member of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has come down with the coronavirus. Crews in the American aircraft carrier, the Theodore Roosevelt and other ships in the U.S. Pacific fleet were infected by the coronavirus.

Beijing has been sending aid to Malaysia to fight the pandemic, but all the while a Chinese warship was operating off of the Malaysian coast prompting Ian Story of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute to comment, “China can say, ‘Look at our superior governance system, which has beaten back the epidemic. And then look at the U.S.’”

He also said, “The optics for the U.S. Navy in the region don’t look so good, even as the Trump administration is trying to reassure its allies.” It should be noted the name of the Chinese warship off Malaysia's coast is named for the city of the pandemic’s origin, Wuhan.