China continues aggression in disputed sea as world grapples with COVID-19 pandemic: analyst

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 14 2020 01:11 PM

The Chinese national flag flies at half mast at a ceremony mourning those who died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as China holds a nationwide mourning on the Qingming tomb-sweeping festival, in Wuhan, Hubei province, China April 4, 2020. China Daily via Reuters

MANILA - The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped China from “steadily” increasing its presence in the disputed South China Sea, harassing Southeast Asian fishermen, a US-based analyst said Tuesday.

Beijing has a "long-term intent to establish de facto control” in the South China Sea is shown by its deployment of vessels and recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, said Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

"What is pretty obvious is China’s not gonna stop. If a global pandemic doesn’t cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there’s not much that will,” he told reporters in an online forum with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

“Our data suggests that there is nothing different today that China wasn’t doing six months ago and presumably that China won’t be doing six months from now.”

The Philippines expressed solidarity with Vietnam over a recent boat-sinking incident, which it also experienced it June 2019, but Poling said he was not impressed with Manila's statement.

“The letter was stronger than recent statements out of the current Department of Foreign Affairs but saying that it’s a stronger statement than we have heard out of the DFA recently doesn’t say a whole lot," he said.

"The DFA blamed Filipino fishermen for being sunk last June in the case of Gem-Ver. Pretty much any statement would be stronger than normal for DFA at this point. It’s certainly not a strong statement about what China did wrong, why is it illegal, what we do about it."

Poling observed that Filipino fishermen, as well as Vietnamese and Malaysian oil and gas operators, are finding it difficult to tread the disputed sea's waters because of China’s increased presence and harassment.

“The numbers of Chinese boats are such that it’s getting harder and harder for Southeast Asian operators to go about their normal business. It is getting increasingly difficult for Filipino fishers to go out,” he said.

Poling said that while China’s top-level leaders are focused on addressing the pandemic, “low-level” actors in the government carry out the Chinese government’s policy to assert sovereignty and prevent fishermen and oil and gas operators from other nations from operating. 

“The only time anybody in Beijing pays attention is when things go out of hand,” he said.

“…It’s not as if Xi Jinping is actually paying attention to the day-to-day operations at the South China Sea. Low level-actors, provincial level government, the southeast fleet of the Navy, local coast guard commandants, they are encouraged, they have standing orders: go out and assert sovereignty, go out and prevent operations by Southeast Asian fishermen, by Southeast Asian oil and gas operators.”

Poling believes China has no intent to pick a fight in the region but increases its presence to force Southeast Asian governments to “surrender” and “just take whatever deal that Beijing is putting on the table” as it becomes risky for fishermen and oil and gas operators to venture out to the sea. 

He believes China “will build something on Scarborough” Shoal with the intent of bringing radar and intelligence capabilities.

"China’s intent is to so overwhelm the region with its Navy, its Coast Guard, its militia, its fishing fleets that Southeast Asian governments decide there is no reasonable choice but surrender, that they should just take whatever deal that Beijing is putting on the table and go home because it’s increasingly going to be too risky, at least for civilian actors," he said.

Poling called for a concerted multilateral effort led by Southeast Asian claimants, with the backing of the United States, Japan and Australia, to put political and economic pressure on China. 

This includes imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions to stop China from its activities, as well as calling out China. He maintains diplomacy is the only way to resolve the matter but with the parties not agreeing yet on the draft, Poling said the process for crafting a code of conduct has failed.

"Because if China is seen as a bully in some neighborhood, nobody is gonna wanna sign up to the idea that China gets to help several others internationally," he said.

“Sooner or later, luck is gonna run out. We’re gonna have dead mariners… and when there are bodies in the water, governments around the world are gonna have to decide whether or not they want to speak up. I wish that we could get there before that happens but it seems like that’s the only thing that’s gonna wake everybody up.”

Poling believes the end of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, presumably by August, would be detrimental to Manila's military capability, saying it would result in US vessels needing a lot of time to reach disputed waters. 

“The two biggest winners of the end of the VFA are gonna be China and Abu Sayyaf. Can we find some way to continue our operation until we can get something like the DFA back? I’m hopeful but the politics are gonna be extremely difficult,” he said.