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China Makes More Moves In South China Sea To Defend Territorial Claims


China is practicing what you might call coronavirus diplomacy, sending masks and personal protection equipment across the world. But at the same time, it's also continuing to make territorial claims in the South China Sea. China considers almost all of that sea as its own. Their neighbors and international law see it differently. Here's Michael Sullivan.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Earlier this month, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. Last week, a Chinese survey vessel illegally entered Malaysian waters. And over the weekend, China established two new municipalities on islands it's built or occupied in the South China Sea. Escalation or more of the same?

GREGORY POLING: We're seeing the same activity from China that we saw six months ago and that we'll probably see six months from now. But people find it more egregious, more scandalous in the middle of a pandemic when, I guess, folks thought if there was any time that Beijing would back off, it would be now.

SULLIVAN: Gregory Poling directs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

POLING: There is a long-term Chinese plan that has been steadily picking up steam for the last several years since Beijing completed its island building campaign. And it's not going to stop just because of a global pandemic.

SULLIVAN: In fact, the pandemic may even be working to China's advantage, says Collin Koh at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

COLLIN KOH: What we are seeing here is pretty much business as usual with the exception that China is radically making use of the current situation to ensure that what it is doing now will actually meet little or no opposition from the other claimant states in the South China Sea.

SULLIVAN: Claimants such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines - too busy with their own COVID cases to offer much in the way of opposition. The U.S. Navy, which often conducts freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea to counter China's claims, has also been hit by the COVID crisis. The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is now in port in Guam after hundreds of sailors became infected.

KOH: Even if the carrier is out of action, we still can expect, you know, some other U.S. military assets to operate in the South China Sea. These are, I would say, sufficient for now in at least showing the flag.

SULLIVAN: In fact, three U.S. warships and an Australian frigate took part in a joint exercise in the South China Sea this week, not far from where the Chinese research vessel is illegally surveying in Malaysian waters. The Chinese presence, says Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defence Force Academy, is yet another act of intimidation aimed at bringing China closer to its goal.

CARL THAYER: The South China Sea would be a Chinese lake. You want to operate there as a local country, you do so with China's approval and you behave in a certain way. The endgame is no U.S. Navy, no foreign oil companies and China dominates.

SULLIVAN: Thayer, reached via Skype, says China is well on its way toward achieving that goal. Though the U.S. Navy is doing its best, he says, the Trump administration's political indifference when it comes to Southeast Asia isn't helping.

THAYER: President Trump has missed three consecutive summits with ASEAN leaders. He has - he stopped going to the East Asia summit - is bored, doesn't like it. That undermines U.S. credibility, so the U.S. position has really deteriorated.

SULLIVAN: A fact not lost on China as it continues to increase its presence and apply more pressure on rival claimants in the South China Sea.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.