Beijing continues South China Sea aggression during pandemic

As the world strugges to beat the coronavirus pandemic, China has remained as aggressive as ever in the South China Sea, including the part that Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea.

Tailing other countries’ ships, ramming a fishing boat, and challenging a Philippine naval vessel patrolling its own territory are hardly new actions from China in contested waters. (LIST: China's incursions in Philippine waters)

What makes these actions more stark is that they have continued in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

"Now I think people are more scandalized. They’ve assumed that amid a global pandemic, there would be a calming [of Chinese activities in the South China Sea], and that has not happened," said Asia maritime analyst and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) director Greg Poling in a virtual forum in mid-April.

China even raised the stakes when it created bureaucracies to administer the Paracel and Spratly island groups as though they were part of its Hainan province. It then named several dozen geographical features in these areas, as though it owned them.

9-DASH LINE. The orange portion in this map shows China's expansive claim to the South China Sea using its 9-dash line, struck down as invalid by a 2016 international ruling.

These moves have drawn opposition from other claimant states in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. At a time when governments are struggling to contain a deadly outbreak, China goes ahead with its expansionist plans simply because it has the muscle to keep doing so.

China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea have affected nearly all claimant states since the coronavirus pandemic spread beyond its own borders in early 2020. Here’s how:

MALAYSIA

Reuters reported China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 survey ship entered waters near Malaysia on April 16, citing data from ship tracking website Marine Traffic. The next day, the ship was seen close to the West Capella oil exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s oil company, Petronas.

SURVEY VESSEL. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 at sea. Photo from Weibo

The report cited a Malaysian security source who said the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was flanked "at one point…by more than 10 Chinese vessels, including those belonging to maritime militia and the [China] coastguard." A Vietnamese vessel was reportedly seen as well.

China denied this and said Haiyang Dizhi 8 was conducting "normal activities."

Malaysia’s foreign ministry did not immediately call out the incident, but days later on April 23, the country’s foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for disputes in the strategic waterway to be resolved "peacefully."

The incident prompted the United States to call out what it described was China’s "bullying behavior" in the maritime area. The US chided China for taking advantage of other countries’ focus on the coronavirus pandemic to assert its expansive claims in the strategic sea.

Days after the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was spotted in waters claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, and China, the USS America and USS Bunker Hill, were spotted close to the area where the stand-off took place. The US Indo-Pacific Command said the warships were in the area as part of freedom of navigation operations.

VIETNAM

Sinking of fishing vessel near Paracels

On April 2, a Chinese vessel supposedly hit and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat with 8 people on board near the Paracel islands. A local official from Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province near the Paracels claimed the Chinese crew then "captured and detained" the crew of the Vietnam fishing vessel on a nearby island.

TENSION AT SEA. The China Coast Guard Ship 4301 involved in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Beijing refuted the claim and countered with a different narrative: the Vietnamese fishing vessel refused to leave the area after a China Coast Guard ship ordered it to do so. The Vietnamese ship later "suddenly turned sharply" and hit the Chinese ship, which had tried to "avoid" it.

Vietnam rejected China’s claim and lodged a diplomatic protest against the country.

The sinking of one of its fishing vessels, Vietnam said, violated the country’s sovereignty and "threatened the lives of and damaged the property and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen."

The Philippines later expressed "deep concern" over the incident, recalling a similar experience when a Chinese ship rammed a Philippine vessel and abandoned Filipino fishermen in the high seas in Recto Bank (Reed bank) in June 2019. The Filipino fishermen of fishing boat Gem-Ver happened to have been rescued by Vietnamese fishermen hours after their abandonment.

"Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it; and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen…We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam," the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement.

Saying the recent sinking of a Vietnamese vessel incident undermined trust in the region, the Philippines urged China and other Southeast Asian countries to foster cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Haiyang Dizhi 8 returns to Vietnam waters

Yet a few days after the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the Paracels, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 research vessel returned to Vietnam’s waters in mid-April.

Marine Traffic data showed the Haiyang Dizhi 8 was found to be within 200 nautical miles from the coast of Vietnam, or within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It was also reportedly flanked by at least one China Coast Guard ship and other escort ships.

The Haiyang Dizhi 8 was the same ship involved in a stand-off with Vietnam in 2019, when it spent weeks in waters close to an oil rig in a Vietnamese oil block, operated by Russia’s Rosneft.

The ship reportedly conducted suspected oil exploration surveys in Vietnam’s EEZ again, leading tensions to rise once more between Hanoi and Beijing.

PHILIPPINES

The swarm near Pag-asa Island

Pag-asa Island, internationally known as Thitu Island, lies 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan. It is home to a Filipino community, with around 200 civilians and 50 military troops.

It is the largest of the 9 islets and reefs that comprise the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), the portion of the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines. As a municipality, the KIG is governed from Pag-asa Island.

The 37-hectare island boasts of the country’s only airstrip in the KIG. However, this runway is unpaved and parts of it are in disrepair, making it difficult to schedule flights to the island.

This is why, in late 2018, the government began building a beaching ramp on Pag-asa, so that construction materials can be brought in to fix and pave the airstrip.

In December 2018, AMTI of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) began monitoring the presence of Chinese fishing vessels gathering near Pag-asa Island.

PAG-ASA ISLAND. Philippine construction on Pag-asa Island provokes a paramilitary response from China.

These fishing vessels are widely believed to be militias, a paramilitary fleet serving China’s expansionist purposes without sparking overt conflict with other claimant states.

The Philippine government earlier protested the swarming of Pag-asa in the summer of 2019, yet it has persisted – all the way since the pandemic began.

In January and February 2020, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spotted a total of 136 Chinese boats in the waters off Pag-asa. On February 17, the military counted 76 of them, the highest number on a single day during that period.

AMTI's Poling said in a study in March that the Chinese militia swarm may have been triggered by the Philippines’ move to upgrade structures on Pag-asa Island. The Chinese boats may have meant to hamper Philippine vessels approaching the island.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denied this, saying it was the area’s erratic weather, not the presence of Chinese vessels, that had delayed and prolonged the work on the island.

But even Philippine officials expect the Chinese vessels to remain in the area indefinitely.

From a watchtower on Pag-asa, one could see on the southwestern horizon the tops of buildings on Zamora Reef, internationally known as Subi Reef, one of China’s 7 artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea.

Now transformed into a military base, Zamora Reef enables China to maintain the fleet of vessels seen near Pag-asa Island, just 14 nautical miles away, said National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr in early March.

UPGRADE. This satellite image from June 2019 shows construction work on Pag-asa Island, the Philippines' main outpost in the West Philippine Sea.

Corvette targeted

On February 17, the Philippine Navy’s most powerful commissioned vessel, the corvette BRP Conrado Yap, was on its third day of territorial patrols covering the KIG and the Malampaya Natural Gas Facility off Palawan when it encountered a foreign warship patroling the same waters.

The sailors on the Conrado Yap identified the other vessel as a corvette of China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) with bow number 514.

The Conrado Yap then issued a radio warning to inform the other corvette that it was trespassing in Philippine waters. The PLAN 514 radioed back, "The Chinese government has immutable sovereignty over the South China Sea, its islands and its adjacent waters."

The Filipino sailors reiterated their challenge to the Chinese intruders and told them to “proceed directly” to their next destination. The Chinese sailors, too, repeated their assertion that they were in Chinese waters, and maintained their ship’s speed and course.

At this point, the Filipino sailors noticed that the PLAN 514’s gun control director was aimed at the Conrado Yap. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ commander in Palawan, Vice Admiral Rene Medina, said this meant the Chinese warship had locked in its guns on the Conrado Yap as a potential target, "ready to fire in a second."

The incident did not escalate, and both warships went on their way. However, the act of targeting the Conrado Yap was, by international military conventions, an act of aggression.

"This hostile act on the part of Chinese government and encroachment within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone is perceived as a clear violation of international law and Philippine sovereignty," Medina said.

One of the West Philippine Sea’s staunchest defenders, retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio, had called the incident “pure and simple bullying” by China. Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, meanwhile, hit the incident as a "provocative and reckless escalation" of tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

The DFA officially protested this incident with the Chinese embassy in Manila on April 22.

Activity on reclaimed reefs

In late March, Chinese state media reported that the Chinese Academy of Sciences had launched new research centers on Zamora Reef and Kagitingan Reef, known internationally as Fiery Cross Reef.

The new research centers on the two reclaimed reefs complement the station built earlier on Panganiban Reef, internationally known as Mischief Reef. Together, they form an "integrated scientific research base" for China in the West Philippine Sea.

The research stations feature "a number of laboratories on ecology, geology and environments, [and] can support scientists in field investigation, sampling and scientific research" in the area, the report by Xinhua stated.

Poling said these are new research units, not necessarily new facilities or structures on the reclaimed islands. Nevertheless, they show that China remains undeterred in increasing its presence and control in the West Philippine Sea.

On March 28, the Israel-based satellite imaging company ImageSat reported spotting a Chinese military Shaanxi Y-8 transport plane on Kagitingan Reef.

The "routine operation" of deploying military planes to the reclaimed islands could indicate that the Chinese military is “hardly affected” by the coronavirus pandemic.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

China names two new districts and 80 maritime features

Last April 18, China announced it created two new districts in the South China Sea – the Paracel (Xisha) island group district near Vietnam and the Spratly (Nansha) island group district, part of which is in the West Philippine Sea.

Beijing placed the districts under the control of the Chinese city of Sansha in Hainan province and named Woody Island (Yongxing Island) as the administrative base of the Paracel island district and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan Reef) as the administrative center of the Spratlys district.

A few days later, China followed this up by naming 80 islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals and ridges – 55 of which were submerged in water. The move was viewed as a violation of international law and raised tensions with several claimant states, including the Philippines.

With the consecutive naming of districts and features, Beijing again tried to claim ownership of virtually the entire waterway, citing the areas as part of their territory.

Carpio said China’s naming of districts and features do not equate to ownership but likewise warned it could be another way for Beijing to assert its propaganda that it owned the South China Sea.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines quickly rebuked China’s actions and filed diplomatic protests to express their strong opposition to what they declared was a violation of their respective countries’ sovereignty.

The DFA, in particular, said it did not recognize the Chinese city of Sansha which the new South China Sea districts were part of, nor names given to some features in the KIG in the Spratlys.

PAG-ASA ISLAND. An aerial view of the Philippines' largest outpost in the West Philippine Sea.

Since 2012, the Philippines has protested China’s “unlawful establishment of Sansha City” and rejected its assertion that the city's jurisdiction reached territory and maritime zones in the West Philippine Sea.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr had also earlier said China wrongly declared the KIG and Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) as part of Chinese territory.

"The establishment and supposed extent of jurisdiction of 'Sansha City' of which the new two districts are part, violate Philippine territorial sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc, and infringes on Philippine sovereign rights over the waters and continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea," the DFA said.

In objecting to China’s claims, the Philippines asserted its victory against China in 2016 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

"The unanimous Award issued by the Tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the arbitration instituted by the Philippines, has comprehensively addressed China’s excessive claims and illegal actions in the South China Sea," the DFA said.

The international arbitral award – downplayed by President Rodrigo Duterte and rejected by Beijing – affirmed the Philippines' sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. The historic ruling likewise debunked China's spurious 9-dash line claim it used to lay claim to virtually the entire waterway.

Band together

What recourse do Southeast Asian claimant states have in the face of Beijing’s aggression in the strategic maritime region? China rejects the arbitral award, and the Philippine government, under Duterte, has all but given up on trying to get Beijing to budge.

The best chance of pushing back, Carpio earlier said, would be to push back together.

JOINT PATROLS. A Philippine Navy contingent joins the Exercise Rim of the Pacific in Hawaii in June 2018.

Individually, these smaller states are unable to match China’s naval presence, but if they band together for joint maritime patrols, they should be able to somehow assert their presence on the water, Carpio suggested.

However, Esperon shot down Carpio’s suggestion, saying naval patrols that could provoke China were out of the question.

As for China naming features in the West Philippine Sea, Carpio said the Philippines could simply authorize the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority as the national authority approving names. This way, the international bodies approving names of geographical features will have to block naming applications from China.

Carpio had been suggesting this to the government since 2018, but to no avail.

"The Chinese plan doesn’t have to happen, doesn’t have to be realized if we push back. We can stop if we want to stop it. But if we don’t do anything, then they will succeed," Carpio warned.

Meanwhile, the Duterte administration has stuck to its mantra that China is its best friend, even in the middle of a pandemic. Despite the incidents at sea, the President never condemned nor called out China, instead thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping on several occasions.

Is it any wonder, then, that it’s business as usual for China in the West Philippine Sea? – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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