MANILA - China is using its assistance to other nations in the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent pushback in its continuous aggression in the disputed South China Sea, a maritime law expert said Monday.
Bejing is also using other claimant nations' pre-occupation with the pandemic to expand its control in the disputed waters, according to Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
"One could argue that it is using this cooperation as a way to leverage against any criticisms of China as leverage against any actions or protests against China for its activities in the West Philippine Sea," he told ANC.
"This is taking place simultaneously with their medical aid and assistance and offers of cooperation on this pandemic."
Last week, Beijing received Manila's diplomatic protests after a Chinese ship pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in the latter's waters in February and for declaring parts of Manila's territory in the disputed sea as part of a Chinese province.
Batongbacal said there was a "sensitivity to timing" in Manila's filing of the diplomatic protests.
"During the intervening period you had all of the government playing up cooperation with China, with the expectations of donations, the sending of a medical team, all of that had to take place first before they could release information that a protest was actually made," he said.
'Equivalent to pointing a gun'
The February incident between the Philippine Navy and a Chinese warship was also an escalation as this was the first time it happened in the history of the two nations' maritime dispute, according to Batongbacal.
"We have not seen those kinds of action being taken against Philippine ships until this year," he said.
"That is regarded as a hostile act, an act of aggression. Such an action has caused major diplomatic fallout."
Batongbacal cited a similar incident between Korea and Japan and China and Japan.
"So China knows it is wrong and they themselves consider it wrong and yet they did it to our ship," he said.
"And there are some unconfirmed reports this is not the first time, this is not the only incident. This is really an escalation on their part. It is equivalent to pointing a gun."
Other claimant nations in the disputed waters should ignore China's creation of districts and continue their patrols and activities in their respective jurisdictions, Batongbacal said.
"They (China) will of course in the future try to use this as evidence of so-called civilian effective administration of this area. That’s why it’s important for Philippines and other nations to make diplomatic protests against this so that kind of usage can be prevented," he said.
"Backing them up by continuing their patrols, fishing and petroleum exploration in the area in accordance with their own laws within their areas of jurisdiction."
Batongbacal warned that China may later use this as "basis for arguing that other countries recognized their jurisdiction and sovereignty over the South China Sea."
"If you look at the region, all of the states are dealing with the same problem... Only China has an excessive amount of resources to be threatening countries while a pandemic is ongoing," he said.