With the Covid-19 pandemic mostly contained in China and now wreaking havoc on the United States, security analysts are closely watching Beijing’s military moves in the hotly contested South China Sea.
In recent days, China has conducted military drills and deployed large-scale military assets to the maritime area while at the same time officially celebrating strides made in exploiting disputed energy resources in the fossil fuel-rich sea.
While some see China’s nationalistic messaging as a bid to rally its people during difficult Covid-19 times, others view the increasingly aggressive naval maneuvers as a bid to exploit America’s weakened condition to secure new advantage in the hot spot theater.
Rival Southeast Asian claimants are also in a compromised strategic position as they contend with worsening Covid-19 outbreaks.
The Philippines and Malaysia, both at territorial loggerheads with China in the sea, have both recently placed their administrative and commercial capitals under weeks-long, military-enforced lockdowns.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and top security officials including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana are in self-imposed quarantines, with Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Felimon Santos Jr recently testing positive for Covid-19.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has been mobilized to help combat the epidemic under the Defense Production Act, which allows the US military to provide critical health services, and produce and transfer desperately-needed medical equipment to civilian agencies and facilities.
China’s bid to opportunize on the Covid-19 crisis which originated in its Wuhan city has been on display on multiple fronts. On one hand, Beijing has launched a concerted attempt to reshape the pandemic’s narrative, including the bizarre suggestion by top Chinese officials that the US military planted the virus in China.
This has gone hand-in-hand with attempts to drive a diplomatic wedge between the US and its traditional transatlantic allies, some of which have recently committed naval vessels to US-led freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
China has bid to highlight the US’s perfunctory travel ban on European virus-infected nations while it provided desperately needed medical equipment to worst-hit nations such as Italy and Spain, a gambit some are referring to as Beijing’s “face mask diplomacy.”
While trumpeting itself as a global leader at a time of crisis, Beijing is pressing ahead in expanding its strategic and economic footprints in the South China Sea.
The ministry trumpeted its “solid technical foundation for commercial exploitation” to become the first country in the South China Sea to exploit gas hydrates, mineral deposits at the bottom of oceans, by utilizing a horizontal well-drilling technique.
The production process ran between February 17 to March 18, just as the coronavirus epidemic began to ravage countries across the Western world.
China’s strides in energy development technology will likely only reinforce its bid to dominate, if not monopolize, vast untapped oil and gas deposits within its so-called ‘nine-dash’ line claim, which covers close to 85% of the South China Sea and overlaps with waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands.
In that direction, China has also recently conducted significant military drills in the disputed areas. These have included anti-submarine drills, held soon after the Pentagon deployed the US guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell in a freedom of navigation operation in the sea before the coronavirus pandemic hit the US mainland with full force.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also flexed its naval muscles in the area through recent military drills led by the country’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Those followed on aircraft-carrier-led drills in the northern portions of the South China Sea.
“Under difficult sea conditions in the early spring in the Bohai Strait, multiple J-15 fighter jets took off from the flight deck of the Liaoning and successfully landed several hours later, indicating the success of the technique rehabilitation training for instructors at Naval Aviation University,” announced the PLA Daily on March 23.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.