(Image: Li Gang)

As Scott Morrison and other leaders begin to eye a return to something approaching normal, they must be a little jealous as they cast their eye towards China.

While a so-called snap back — or “V-shaped” recovery — is something Beijing may not have managed to execute economically as China heads for its worst economic year since the days of the Cultural Revolution, the situation is looking far more business-as-usual on the strategic front.

China’s gradual and relentless encroachment on the vast waters of the South China Sea, the site of a territorial dispute with seven neighbouring nations — Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei and Taiwan — has barely taken a pause during the COVID-19 crisis.

While some observers fear that Beijing may consider using the COVID-19 “pause” to seize control of Taiwan, its actions in the South China Sea remain far more concerning, at least for now.

The depth of the maritime disputes can be seen clearly in the nomenclature used by various nations regarding the area. In China, it is called the South Sea (nán hǎi) while Vietnam calls it the East Sea.

The Philippines formerly called its territorial waters the Luzon Sea but in 2011, as the dispute with China over the Spratly Islands escalated, the West Philippine Sea. Indonesia calls parts of the sea the North Natuna Sea — north of the Indonesian Natuna Islands.

In the past decade China has moved more comprehensively into disputed waters, first creating islands by transporting sand and then building military installations on some of them — after Chinese leader Xi Jinping quite specifically said it would not.

So trust in China’s intentions remain at a nadir that will have only been underlined by Beijing’s recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing trawler, killing eight people. Vietnam lodged an official complaint with the United Nations. China is a signatory to the UN Charter but ignores it when it suits.

In mid April, Beijing announced that the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, the Macclesfield Bank and surrounding waters would be administered as two new districts of Sansha City, an administrative area which China created on Woody Island in 2012. These areas are also claimed by Vietnam which is considering taking the case to the United Nation courts.

Significantly, China’s relentless continuation of its South China Sea strategy comes as a disastrously underprepared United States continues to suffer as the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The US military has become collateral damage, with thousands of personnel and dozens of US Navy ships seeing infections. Officials are spooked following the case of Asia-based aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, where there was a massive outbreak of coronavirus led to the ship’s captain being sacked and the secretary of the Navy resigning — although he is expected to be reinstated.

Following a subsequent outbreak on the USS Kidd, the US Navy reported 2162 confirmed cases of COVID 19 as of May 11. More than half are personnel on the USS Theodore Roosevelt or USS Kidd.  

US military defence contractors have put workers on leave, making it unclear when production lines will be running at capacity again. Research into advanced technologies and materials is also being affected.

Upping the ante on military hardware during the crisis, China has unveiled a new helicopter carrier. The US has countered with a recent show of strength on social media, with pictures of its aircraft carriers and a message from the Chief of Naval Operations on Twitter, stating that the US Navy “has six carriers underway right now. Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Nimitz, Lincoln, and Ford all operating where ships belong… at sea …”

Australia, of course, has particular interest in what happens in the South China Sea.

There is the overriding imperative of making sure there is no hot conflict between China and any other country in the Asia Pacific. Apart from the obvious risk of any wars, the immediate and lasting economic fallout for Australia would be immense.

Asia constitutes about 80% of all our export markets, travelling through disputed waters not just to China but to our next two biggest export markets — Japan and South Korea — as well as to Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia.

Until recently Australia has been consistent in its criticism of China’s maritime adventurism in the South China Sea, but as we have noted here before, it has become distracted by its ill-advised freelancing on a coronavirus inquiry.

China is further muddying the issues as it (quite gleefully) presses trade buttons on barley and beef. It’s time that Canberra stepped back and looked more holistically on Australia’s relationship with China, focusing on the bigger picture where the South China Sea looms large.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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