As the world focuses on Covid-19, is China exploiting the distraction in the South China Sea? Only if you believe US propaganda
- China has not stopped its activities in its claimed areas but neither have other claimant countries – and nor has the US, which continues its provocative freedom of navigation operations. Singling out China merely promotes US propaganda
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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