S. China Sea dispute weighs on Covid-19 battle

The pandemic presents an opportunity for Beijing to deal new fait accompli situations to other South China Sea claimants


THE appearance of the US and Australian warships in the South China Sea marks another episode in a long-standing maritime saga that has been at the epicentre of the US-China conflict.

While many thought the global battle against the coronavirus would have at least put a temporary halt to disputes over the waterway, military experts expected nothing less.

China’s latest move in the South China Sea had prompted the US Navy to deploy two naval vessels in the disputed area in a standoff that could further sever ties between Washington and Beijing. The USS America and the USS Bunker Hill were later joined by an Australian frigate and a third US warship.

Beijing’s hostility toward its neighbours has been put in the spotlight once again following several notable incidents in recent months which include the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Last week, a Chinese survey ship called the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was found tagging an exploration vessel operated by Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) within Malaysia’s maritime area. The same survey ship had previously tracked oil operations off the Vietnamese coast.

Petronas and the Defence Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea is clear and consistent, and that the country remains firm in its commitment to safeguard its interest and rights in the South China Sea.

“Our stance is that any dispute should be resolved amicably through peaceful means, diplomacy and mutual trust by all the concerned parties.

“Just because we have not made a public statement on this does not mean we have not been working on all the above mentioned. We have open and continuous communication with all relevant parties, including China and the US,” he said in a statement yesterday.

This comes as China plays up its generosity around the world, including in South-East Asia, where it has donated millions of face masks and other medical equipment.

S Rajaratnam School of International Studies research fellow Collin Koh Swee Lean said the latest act is a continuation of China’s relentless push for a stronger stance to assert its maritime right and sovereignty since President Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012.

“The only difference now is the pandemic presents an opportunity for Beijing to assert these claims and deal new fait accompli situations to other South China Sea claimants with the hope of getting zero or suboptimal response from the latter as they grapple with containing the virus outbreak.

“Xi and his party have to show not only the people, but also outsiders, that they’re firmly in charge and this extends to the manner in which China asserts its South China Sea claims — there’s no relenting because of the pandemic,” he told The Malaysian Reserve.

Under Xi, China has forcefully asserted its claims over the South China Sea with a nine-dash line demarcation that is not recognised by its neighbours nor the United Nations (UN). This, however, has not stopped China from expanding its control over the contested area by building artificial islands and facilities that can be used for military purposes.

Most recently, Beijing had produced a list of Chinese names and coordinates for 80 islands and other geographical features in the South China Sea. It had even set up administrative structures in the disputed waters by placing two new districts under the authority of a local government in Hainan.

The new districts will govern the Paracels and Macclesfield Bank — an area claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan — as well as the Spratly Islands and their adjacent waters. The Spratly Islands has six claimants, including Malaysia which claims sovereignty over at least a dozen of the islands.

Malaysia’s silence over the South China Sea dispute has been deafening but is expected, Koh said, as a megaphone approach could aggravate the situation.

However, Koh said the latest crisis should serve as a wake-up call for Malaysia that appeasing China by trying to downplay the South China Sea for the sake of the “big picture” in bilateral ties is no longer feasible.

“It is time to devote real efforts in bolstering the navy and coastguard offshore capabilities. Malaysia should also put in more effort into economic resilience by diversifying sources of investments and export market access, instead of relying on China which would constitute a risk of direct or indirect economic coercion that Beijing can employ,” he said.