Chinese soldiers in face masks to guard against Covid-19 infection. Photo: Twitter

MANILA – As Southeast Asian nations grapple with Covid-19 outbreaks and the US Navy grounds ships due to infections among its personnel, China is leveraging the health crisis as a strategic opportunity to assert control in the South China Sea.

With China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and other forces unscathed by the virus, the Asian powerhouse is increasingly flexing its muscles through major military drills, consolidation of control of disputed features and, most recently, overawing smaller Southeast Asian claimants.

Earlier this month, China sank a Vietnamese fishing boat with eight crew members on board in the overlapping waters each claim off the Paracel Islands. A Vietnamese official from nearby Quang Ngai province complained “This is the first time a Chinese ship has hit and sunk boats in our commune,” according to various media reports.

Following the ramming and sinking, a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel detained the crew on a nearby island. Two nearby Vietnamese vessels, which sought to rescue their countrymen, were reportedly also apprehended by Chinese authorities.

All of them were later released by Chinese authorities, the reports said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the Vietnamese fishing boat of intruding into Chinese waters and claimed the vessel “suddenly turned sharply” to ram the Chinese coast guard ship.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP via Getty

“It rammed into our coastguard ship and sunk – all eight of the crew have been rescued,” claimed CCG spokesman Zhang Jun, in a counternarrative of the incident.

“We have urged Vietnam to take measures to avoid similar incidents from happening in light of the increasingly frequent illegal fishing activities in [Paracel] waters,” he said.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry, however, rejected China’s explanation, claiming “The Chinese vessel committed an act that violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the [Paracels] archipelago and threatened the lives and damaged the property and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen.

The incident marked the second time in the past 12 months in which China has provocatively sunk a rival Southeast Asian nation’s fishing vessel. The US, which frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations in the contested sea, has notably come to Vietnam’s rhetorical defense.

US State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus publicly accused China of exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to seize ground in the South China Sea, and said that Washington is “seriously concerned” by the incident involving a Vietnamese fishing boat.

“This incident is the latest in a long string of [Chinese] actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” Ortagus said.  

Beijing should “remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea,” the US spokesman said.

US military personnel on guard against the Covid-19 outbreak at a military facility. Photo: Facebook

It remains to be seen how the US will respond militarily, if at all. In recent weeks the Pentagon has suspended overseas deployments and placed restrictions on the publication of infection rates among its personnel.

It has also grounded one of America’s most iconic aircraft carriers, The USS Theodore Roosevelt, in Guam amid widespread coronavirus transmission among its naval personnel following a recent visit to Vietnam’s Da Nang port.

The Pentagon is now also distracted by domestic concerns as its personnel provide desperately needed medical equipment and services to help contain America’s Covid-19 outbreak, currently the epicenter of the deadly pandemic.

With the US weakened and distracted, Southeast Asian nations are showing rare signs of solidarity faced with China’s rising threat. For example, the Philippines, another major South China Sea claimant state that has leaned heavily towards China under President Rodrigo Duterte, surprisingly stood by Vietnam after the recent ship-sinking incident.

In a statement, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said that it’s “crucial” that such incidents should be avoided since they “undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship” between Beijing and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors.

The Philippines also thanked Vietnam for its previous gestures of solidarity and friendship, most notably when Vietnamese fishermen saved their Filipino counterparts who almost drowned last year after being rammed and sunk by a Chinese militia vessel at the contested Reed Bank. 

A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago. Photo: Twitter

“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,” the DFA’s statement said.

“We have not stopped and will not stop thanking Vietnam. It is with that in mind that we issue this statement of solidarity.”

Despite Duterte’s pro-China pronouncements, including a recent expression of gratitude for China’s provision of medical equipment amid the Covid-19 outbreak, the Filipino public is largely skeptical of China’s intentions judging by surveys that consistently reveal “net negative” trust ratings.

The China-originated pandemic, which has now forced an economically devastating lockdown on the commercial heart of the Philippines, is further fueling anger and discontent among Filipinos and officials who sense Beijing is leveraging the crisis to make gains on Manila’s claimed waters and features in the South China Sea.

There are concurrent concerns that the coronavirus plague may undermine the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) ability to protect the country against insurgencies and terror groups in its southernmost regions and peripheries, as well as externally vis-a-vis China in the South China Sea and Western Pacific.

While the Philippines has grappled with its escalating Covid-19 situation, China has simultaneously stepped its militarization of the Manila-claimed Mischief Reef, which falls within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

China is also bolstering its presence around the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which falls just over 100 nautical miles from the Philippines’ strategic Subic and Clark military bases.

Beijing also recently deployed the giant China coast guard 5302 vessel, a 4,000 metric ton Shucha II-class vessel with helicopter landing pads capable of hosting 30 millimeter cannons.

The move has raised alarm bells in the Philippines, where many are anxious about Beiing’s potential militarization of the disputed shoal following Duterte’s recent abrogation of a key defense deal with the US and the pandemic’s disruption of joint military exercises with American forces for the foreseeable future. 

The Philippines’ rising Covid-19 epidemic outbreak has ricocheted at the highest echelons of military power, infecting no less than the country’s current military chief Felimon Santos Jr and former military chief and current Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.

Other top officials such as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana have recently placed themselves in self-quarantine after being in close proximity to infected staff and officials.

More broadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted Vietnam’s historic opportunity to rally the region towards a unified South China Sea stance through its chairmanship of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Prior to the pandemic’s full outbreak, many hoped that Hanoi could steer smaller neighbors towards greater solidarity on the South China Sea disputes in a collective bid to check Beijing’s expansionist ambitions through high-level diplomacy.

China’s Covid-19 era moves could yet trigger greater unity among smaller claimant states and push those previously on the diplomatic fence between the two superpowers more firmly into America’s sphere. Until that happens, China is seizing opportunity in crisis to shape the post-pandemic strategic order in the contested sea.