Never mind the pandemic lashing health systems and economies around Asia, when it comes to China's assertiveness in Asia's maritime commons it appears to be business as usual. There were news reports last week of a Chinese government survey ship tagging an exploration vessel operated by Petronas, Malaysia's state oil company, in disputed waters in the South China Sea. Last Saturday, according to a Chinese announcement reported by Japan's NHK, Beijing approved setting up two districts to administer islands and reefs in the disputed area, one to administer the islands and reefs of the Paracel Islands, and the other, those of the Spratlys. Vietnam has duly lodged a protest.
These moves do not come in isolation. Since February, Chinese trawlers guarded by China's coast guard have been fishing in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natunas, even as Jakarta's attention is focused on the Covid-19 pandemic that was first reported out of Wuhan. China does not challenge Indonesia's EEZ but justifies its actions by saying the waters were traditional fishing grounds of its fishermen. Earlier this month, Hanoi protested to Beijing over the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coast guard ship. China says dangerous actions of the Vietnamese vessel caused the accident and that the fishermen it rescued had admitted to wrongdoing.
The Taiwan Strait has been busy too. In the first quarter of the year, Taipei has repeatedly scrambled fighters to counter Chinese fighters probing its airspace. On March 16, China conducted its first night exercises near the territory, using fighters and surveillance aircraft. On the same day, one of its speedboats apparently rammed a Taiwanese navy vessel near the Kinmen Islands. This was on top of China sailing its home-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, through the strait just before Taiwan's presidential election. Put it all together and a pattern emerges of the regional superpower still pursuing its strategic interests, regardless of distractions that may appear in its path.
How should the region respond? Asean has its hands full with the virus outbreak. Nevertheless, Manila, which has been careful to not offend Beijing, has expressed solidarity with Vietnam over the sinking of the fishing vessel and in strong words: "Neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that's lit by such incidents." The United States has expressed serious concern over the incidents and advised China to focus on battling the pandemic. It is worth Beijing's while to listen. While it is possible that jingoistic skippers of small naval vessels may have triggered the odd incident without authorisation of a higher command, the bigger picture is nevertheless troubling. The greater worry then is the larger consequences that all this may lead to.