You might think a global pandemic and the worst crisis since World War Two would lead to a welcome, if temporary tamping down of military activity in already tense and contested environments. Yet even as the novel coronavirus ravages the world, old fashioned geopolitical jousting continues in Asia, reminding us that the passing phase of COVID-19 will simply return much of the world to the status quo ante of great power competition.
In a strange way, the ongoing military activities and geopolitical jockeying of China and the United States in Asia’s vital waterways is almost comforting. If the terrifying uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic shatters old illusions about security and the future, the sight of US Navy ships plying strategic waters and Chinese military exercises is at least something understandable to which we have become accustomed.
No one should welcome or discount, however, the seriousness of the geopolitical game being played out in Asia. It long predates US-China coronavirus tensions and will long outlast them. Indeed, a new era of suspicion and distrust between Washington and Beijing engendered by the corona crisis could have spill-over effects in the seas and skies of East Asia, leading to miscalculation or accident that could add an armed conflict to an unprecedented public health emergency.
While the pandemic has not halted the military activities of either China or America, neither has it seemed to accelerate them. For the most part, both militaries are behaving as they did before the crisis, maintaining a slowly simmering competition for influence, access, and partners.
That the jousting is not worse does not mean in any way that it has become better. As it has been for over a decade, Beijing is pursuing a zero-sum game to become the dominant power in the ‘Asiatic Mediterranean’ of the Yellow, South, and East China Seas. In response, the US Indo-Pacific Command hews to its long-standing strategy of forward-based presence, asserting freedom of the seas and skies, and building a community of maritime interests.
Only few years ago, Asia watchers were riveted on the great power machinations in the South China Sea. As one of the world’s most vital waterways, through which there flowed up to 70 percent of pre-coronavirus global trade, it serves as the crucial hinge between the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific, effectively centering both European and American trade on Asia. Moreover, the South China Sea is riven with territorial disputes over its various island chains, primarily the Spratlys, near the Philippines, and the Paracels, closer to mainland China.
Multiple nations claim sovereignty over some or all of the islands in those chains, and many have attempted to bolster their position by building military outposts or airstrips on the small dots of land. None, however, have gone so far as China, which dredged up the sea floor to make large man-made islands which it then militarized with airfields, radars, anti-ship, and anti-aircraft weaponry, piers and barracks. During the mid-2010s, the Chinese military built over 3,000 acres of new land, far outstripping the holdings of any other claimant nation in the region.
Despite pledging directly to Barack Obama never to install weaponry on its islands, CCP general secretary Xi Jinping proceeded to do just that, attempting to enhance China’s claims to the entire South China Sea. When the Obama administration feebly protested Beijing’s actions, and ineffectively called for a halt to land-reclamation activities, official Chinese newspapers darkly warned of war and Chinese ships and planes harassed nearby US forces.
Meanwhile in the East China Sea, Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels have maintained relentless pressure on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing also claims. In 2019, Chinese government vessels made over 1,000 incursions into waters around the Senkakus, an increase of 80 percent from the previous year.
Although there has not been a major uptick in Chinese military activities since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, Beijing nonetheless continues to remind the region of its power and that its geopolitical goals have not changed. In recent weeks, Chinese military planes have flown near Taiwan’s airspace, continuing a pattern of aerial intimidation that has picked up pace in the past several years, including crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait that separates that democratic island from the mainland. In the most serious incident, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in contested waters, near the Paracel Islands, before capturing and detaining its crew.
In addition, the Chinese military held joint exercises with Cambodia, long a pro-Beijing voice, aimed undoubtedly at Vietnam, which has chafed at China’s growing military presence in Southeast Asia. As a sign that the PLA continues to modernize its military, state news agencies reported on aircraft carrier training exercises and an anti-submarine warfare drill, capabilities well beyond those of any other Asian nation, except Japan and India.
Beijing also continues to employ non-official forces to increase its presence and press its policies. The use of fishing fleets to invade contested waters or directly into sovereign waters has been a favored tactic over the past decade. These supposedly private boats are then often supported by Chinese armed maritime patrol vessels, facing off against much smaller regional coast guards and navies. In the Spratlys, just such a flotilla has been harassing the Philippines coast guard in recent weeks, and has stayed in place, not sailing away even at the height of the crisis.
The goal of Beijing’s maritime incursions is to make capitals throughout the region accept the permanent presence of Chinese boats and naval forces. In the case of the Philippines, Beijing has been eyeing the Scarborough Shoal, which it has essentially controlled since 2012, as its next base. This would directly threaten the Philippines and give China a powerful strategic position in the eastern South China Sea.