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China Sends Ships, Planes over Disputed Seas to Show Strength after COVID-19 Outbreak

Medical personnel arrive in transport aircraft of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 17, 2020.

China is asserting itself in disputed waters around Asia this month to look strong after containing the world’s first coronavirus outbreak as the rest of the world grapples with the disease now.

The Communist leadership seeks an image boost among its own population that's beleaguered by shutdowns and lockdowns -- measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. The deadly respiratory disease virus was discovered in central China in December and led to about 81,000 cases there.

Chinese officials hope to appear strong too around the world against growing resentment that China spawned the coronavirus that’s now hurting economic activity in India, Western Europe, the United States and parts of Southeast Asia, scholars say. China is making up as well for any military exercises they may have put on hold to fight the virus, some believe.

“Priority for China is to protect their national interests, so to step up or to implement military exercises is inevitable,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

South China Sea and Taiwan

Chinese military aircraft carried out an anti-submarine drill this month in the contested South China Sea, apparently in response to patrols by U.S. warships, media in China report.

The U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell passed through part of the sea March 10 in the U.S. Navy’s second mission this year to advocate that the waterway remains open internationally rather than coming under Chinese control.

In a less expected move, China held joint exercises March 15 with Cambodia despite risk of offending Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries that resent China’s military presence in the region.

A Chinese fishing boat “militia” that has pestered the Philippines in the sea’s disputed Spratly Islands never went home in response to the coronavirus outbreak, said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

FILE - In this Monday, May 11, 2015, file photo, This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
FILE - In this Monday, May 11, 2015, file photo, This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Beijing calls about 90% of the South China Sea its own despite competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has reclaimed land to build up the resource-rich sea’s tiny islets for military use. Its coast guard vessels periodically pass through the claims of other countries, all of which are militarily weaker.

China has time from now until the late-year typhoon season to do even more in the South China Sea, Thayer said.

In another show of strength, three Chinese military planes have flown near Taiwanese airspace since February, the defense ministry in Taipei says. China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and has not renounced use of force, as needed, to reach its goal of unification.

“Training for war preparedness will not be stopped even in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic,” Chinese state-controlled news website Global Times said March 25 following an aircraft carrier-based exercise in Chinese territorial waters.

Responses to provocation

Chinese authorities said they had all but stopped the spread of the coronavirus spread this month. But some overseas, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have pointed at China as the source of the virus that has triggered economically destructive city lockdowns around the world. COVID-19 has killed about 18,900 people including 3,281 in China.

The U.S. Navy’s passages through the South China Sea year to date got China all the more fired up, analysts say. But the U.S. government, in the thick of its own COVID-19 response this month, isn’t helping other Asian countries resist China longer term as it has in the past, they add. Annual events where national leaders often discuss China’s maritime activity have been spiked this year.

For China, “it will be business as usual if not intensify,” Thayer said. “China is slapping back (at Washington), and the U.S. is showing no leadership, so it’s a vacuum for China to step in.”

China is likely to increase offshore military activity beyond normal levels only with a “pretext” such as more provocation from the United States, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Otherwise, he said, China’s Asian neighbors would get angry.

“As long as this COVID thing is still running around over the next few months, I don’t think they will go to the extent of resuming reclamation (or) being too proactive in sending their coast guard,” Oh said. “Many countries would sort of at the back of their minds think this virus actually came from China.”