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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Is China Using COVID-19
Pandemic to Advance Its
Interests in the South China Sea?
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 4, 2020
1/ You wrote a Background Brief several months ago in which you forecast that
Vietnam-China Relations in 2020 would be better compared with last year as the two
countries will celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations. How do you explain China’s
actions in sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat on 2 April?
ANSWER: The actions by the China Coast Guard ship no. 4301 appear to be standard
operating procedures for China’s maritime law enforcement agencies. Over the years
I have repeatedly asked Chinese scholars and officials if they can cite one case where
the captain of a Chinese ship/vessel has been punished for attacking a Vietnamese
fishing boat and looting it of its equipment and fish catch. I have never received a
positive response.
China is unlikely to respond to Vietnam’s demands that this incident be investigated,
the responsible officials punished, and compensation paid to the owners of the fishing
boat that was sunk. China will reply that the China Coast Guard was operating with
the law to protect Chinese sovereignty.
I would caution about reading too much into this incident and conclude it was centrally
planned and directed. Chinese authorities will consider this a minor incident.
2/ Do you think China COVID-19 pandemic has affected China’s behaviour toward
countries that have maritime territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea?
Has China changed its position?
ANSWER: China has provided medical supplies and equipment and the services of
medical specialists with experience in dealing with COVID-19 to the Philippines,
Malaysia and Indonesia as well as Cambodia and Myanmar. On 2 April, Premier Li
Keqinag offered similar support to Vietnam.
China has not altered its basic policy on the South China Sea nor has it undertaken
opportunistic actions against Southeast Asian claimant states as a result of the
coronavirus pandemic. China continues to maintain a forward presence by its Coast
Guard, maritime militia and fishing fleet in disputed waters. China continues to push
back against what it perceives as violations of its claim to ‘indisputable sovereignty’.
It is clear, however, that China does not want to appear weak and invite claimant
states or outside states to change the status quo in the South China Sea. In this regard,
China responded to U.S. Navy operations in the South China Sea by conducting an anti-
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submarine warfare exercise and by conducting flight operations off the Liaoning
aircraft carrier in the northern South China Sea.
3/ Do you think China will make use of the time to intensify tensions in the South China
Sea when the world is preoccupied by COVID-19, including raising tensions with
Vietnam?
ANSWER: China has quickly pivoted from being the victim of COVID-19 to being the
world leader in containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. In other words,
China is using the spread of the coronavirus to Europe and the United States
opportunistically to promote its leadership as the only country to have successfully
contained COVID-19. China has provided medical supplies and equipment and the
services of experiences medical specialists to over eighty countries.
China, by its actions, is exposing the United States as an inward-looking country that
has exhibited little global leadership to contain COVID-19.
4/ Will China distract domestic public anger over its worsening economy due to
COVID-19 crisis by creating incidents in the South China Sea such as sinking
Vietnamese fishing boats and deploying the Hai Yang Shi You 982 into Indonesian
waters?
ANSWER: China’s economic growth rates were in decline prior to the outbreak of the
coronavirus mainly due to its tariff war with the United States. The current pandemic
added to this downward pressure. Having said this, there are signs that China is easing
up on its draconic measures to curb COVID-19 and that its economy is starting to show
signs of revival. China is two months ahead of Europe and the U.S. in containing the
virus and reviving its economy. This will be a time for China to push its bid to be
recognised as a global leader.
At the same time, China will continue its business-as-usual approach to sovereignty
assertion in the South China Sea. The recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near
Phu Lam (Woody) Island is an example.
There are credible reports that Xi Jin-ping has won the domestic battle for public
support due to his strong handling of the coronavirus virus. These reports suggest that
there has been an upsurge in Chinese nationalism because China was the first to
contain COVID-19. Xi is unlikely to play to the gallery of his public supporters by
conducting provocative assertions on national sovereignty. Rather, the Chinese media
will dutifully report incidents, such as the sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat, as
evidence that China remains steadfast in defending its territorial claims in the South
China Sea.
Reports that China is deploying the Hai Yang Shi You 982 into Indonesian waters have
not been confirmed.
5/ China rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat approximately one hour before
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and China’s Premier Li Keqiang spoke
over telephone on Thursday, 2nd April. They discussed cooperation in the fight against
COVID-19. Was China’s action intentional?
ANSWER: The actions by the captain of the China Coast Guard vessel to ram and sink
the Vietnamese fishing boat were intentional at the tactical and operational levels. It
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is doubtful that this incident was orchestrated at the strategic level to bring pressure
on the Vietnamese leadership.
China has already laid down strong markers in recent years and these have been aimed
at oil exploration activities by foreign vessels operating in what China considers to be
disputed waters. China’s actions in threatening Vietnam over Repsol of Spain’s
operations in the waters near Vanguard Bank, followed by China’s months long
standoff last year in response to Russia’s Rosneft resumption of oil exploration send a
much stronger message that sinking one Vietnamese fishing boat.
6/ The USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier which visited Vietnam in early March
had to evacuate many of its crew members due to COVID-19. Do you think China will
take advantage of this situation to take stronger action in the South China Sea to back
up its territorial claims? Is there any possibility that China will sink more Vietnamese
fishing boats or causing incidents with the Philippines and Indonesia?
ANSWER: China reacted to recent U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operational patrols
and other U.S. Navy activities in the South China Sea, by conducting military show of
force activities by the People’s Liberation Army Navy. In other words, China seeks to
deter the U.S. Navy from operating in the South China Sea. China has not sought to
punish Vietnam by sinking a fishing boat because Vietnam hosted a port visit the USS
Theodore Roosevelt.
China’s actions in the waters around Pagasa (Thitu) island predated the outbreak of
the coronavirus. Since then President Duterte has given notice that he will terminate
the Visiting Forces Agreement. This is more than China could have hoped for. On the
one hand, Duterte undermines the Philippines alliance with the United States, on the
other hand, Duterte remains quiescent when China violates Philippines’ sovereignty.
From Beijing’s point of view all China has to do is remain quiet and wait for the
Philippines to fall into China’s lap.
7/ What is the United States doing to counter China’s ‘face mask diplomacy’?
ANSWER: The Quad – comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the United States – has
reached out to Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea and held two rounds of
discussions on how to coordinate their response to the COVID-19. This new grouping
has been dubbed the Quad-Plus.
The United States has launched its own version of ‘coronavirus diplomacy’ by
allocating the grand sum of $18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian
assistance to ASEAN member states. The ASEAN South China Sea claimant states
received the following: the Philippines ($4 million), Vietnam ($3 million) and Indonesia
($2.3 million). The U.S. is considering providing respirators and Personal Protective
Equipment to Brunei and Malaysia after U.S. domestic demands are met.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Is China Using COVID-19 Pandemic to Advance
Its Interests in the South China Sea?” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 4,
2020. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove
yourself from the mailing list type, UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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