The power of the coronavirus pandemic as a potential global “game changer” may be on full display in the South China Sea. China is stepping up its operations in the international waterway while the U.S. Defense department grapples with over 1,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its ranks.

The pandemic began in Wuhan, China and peaked in the Communist country in February. China’s numbers may reek of skepticism but by all accounts, they have seen the worst of the disease. Barring any 2nd wave of COVID-19, the country is slowly returning to normal with their military unscathed and at full strength.  

The U.S., on the other hand, is in the middle of its COVID-19 peak with 1,970 new deaths and over 33,000 new cases reported on April 7. Any military operations in the South China Sea have been sideswiped by the coronavirus.

The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a recent visitor to Vietnam is now docked in Guam after more than 170 cases of COVID-19 were reported aboard the ship. Added drama with the carrier’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier occurred when he was stripped of his command when a memo he wrote was leaked to the media.

The other US Navy aircraft carrier in Asian waters is the USS Ronald Reagan. Last week, a defense official told CNN news that there were a "handful" of positive cases. The ship is currently docked in Yokosuka, Japan, undergoing maintenance. Other positive COVID-19 cases in the U.S. military were reported in a Naval base in Sasebo, Japan and in South Korea.

Some analysts, like Carl Schuster, a retired US Navy captain and a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center are suggesting that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may try to take advantage while the United States’ attention is turned elsewhere.

The retired Captain said, "I think China is exploiting the US Navy's coronavirus challenges to improve its position in the South China Sea by giving the appearance it can and will operate there at will while the US is hamstrung.”

The recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel only fuels the assumption that China’s goal is to prevail in the South China Sea. The world’s #2 superpower claims sovereignty of the waters and disregards international and regional objections.

Resistance from neighboring countries is no challenge to China’s vast military so the area depends on a strong U.S. presence to provide some balance of power.

The U.S. is unlikely to move three active aircraft carriers stationed elsewhere to take up the slack caused by the viral outbreaks on the USS Roosevelt and USS Reagan. The timing of the recovery from those affected on the carriers will be something that observers will pay close attention to in the next few weeks.