Tensions in China’s periphery have increased dramatically over the past few months as Beijing stepped up the use of military and diplomatic tools within its neighborhood. The frequency of the events involving Chinese actors, especially in the second half of March, increased as normalcy started returning to the mainland after the COVID-19 pandemic’s outbreak.
This raises a few questions. First, is this evidence of China’s opportunism at a time when the United States is struggling to maintain its presence in the East and Southeast Asian regions? Second, has Beijing adopted a more aggressive approach for the post-pandemic period? Third, would the recent spike in activities impact the regional order?
Before answering these questions, it is vital to understand the chronology of the events that have led to the rise of current tensions in the PRC’s periphery. Indonesia was the first country since the outbreak of the virus to face Chinese coercion, in waters around the Natuna Islands. Dozens of Chinese fishing vessels along with coast guard escorts, in December 2019, entered waters off the Natuna Islands, which are within Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These waters are also claimed by the PRC, thus leading to a month-long standoff between the two countries. Meanwhile, the Chinese armed forces were also involved in multiple military drills around Taiwan since January 2020. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force also carried out an unusual night-time sortie over the sea of southwest Taiwan on March 16, 2020. The increase of tactical military activities has been accompanied by assertive rhetoric, especially since the re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen on January 11, 2020.
Furthermore, in the last week of March, a Chinese fishing boat collided with and damaged a Japanese destroyer in the East China Sea. In the same week, a Chinese vessel also collided with and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea. These are besides the “research and exploration” activities of an infamous Chinese survey ship, Haiyang Dizhi 8, in Vietnam and Malaysia’s EEZ. The survey vessel, which arrived in Malaysia’s EEZ with an escort of Chinese Coast Guard ships, was involved in a face-off with the oil exploration vessel contracted by Malaysian state energy company Petronas.
Moreover, the PRC’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, in a recent move, approved the establishment of the Xisha and Nansha districts, subdivisions of the city of Sansha on Hainan Island. Xisha will govern the Paracels and surrounding waters, while Nansha will cover the Spratly Islands and adjacent waters. China followed up by renaming over 80 topographical features in the South China Sea, a move indicating the Chinese assertion of sovereignty over the disputed region. Previously, Beijing made such a move in 1983 when it identified 287 features in the South China Sea region. Meanwhile, the Liaoning aircraft carrier task group also sailed through the East and South China Seas, conducting month-long exercises before returning to Qingdao naval port in Shandong province.
Recently, the PRC has gotten involved in a few scuffles with India at multiple points along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This has led to an intense face-off between the two countries at three points on the LAC: the Galwan Valley region, Pangong Tso, and Demchok. The situation remains tense. Perhaps, more than post-pandemic opportunism, the events on the LAC could be attributed to rising Chinese insecurities due to India’s improved border infrastructure in these areas. Regardless, a recent report in an Indian newspaper shows a big surge in the number of Chinese transgressions across the LAC as compared to the same period in 2019.
Most of these instances, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak, indicate a clear pattern of increasing Chinese aggression in its neighborhood. The PRC senses a conducive opportunity for asserting its claims on the disputed territories in its periphery, especially the South China Sea, as the United States remains focused on fighting the COVID-19 outbreak at home. Besides, the United States’ Asia-Pacific security cover, which is an insurance policy for many East and Southeast Asian states, was exposed, temporarily, due to multiple COVID-19 infections at forward military bases and naval vessels in the western Pacific region. For instance, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the USS Ronald Regan, the two U.S. aircraft carriers currently in the western Pacific, were immobilized due to reported COVID-19 cases among their crew. With a weakened and distracted United States, the PRC aimed to exploit a rare window of opportunity where it could coerce the regional states to toe its line using military and civilian tools in its neighborhood.
The aggressive posturing also helps the PRC forward its domestic propaganda and assert the notion of having contained the COVID-19 outbreak. Besides, regime security is of the highest importance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is regularly manifested through the mainland’s foreign and security policies. Recent actions in its neighborhood also help the PRC to create a false notion of Chinese nationalism to better control the pushback generated due to the CCP’s mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak in the initial stages.
But, as argued by Abraham Denmark, Charles Edel, and Siddharth Mohandas in their recent War on the Rocks article, there is no novelty in Beijing’s post-pandemic aggressive behavior. “It is consistent with General Secretary Xi Jinping’s approach of flexibility, assertiveness and singular desire to exploit enemies’ weakness,” they argue. However, unlike in the recent past, the PRC this time has gotten involved with all the regional and extraregional stakeholders at the same time in the East and South China Seas. Beijing, in normal circumstances, uses civilian tools like armed fishing vessels in the South China Sea and military and diplomatic tools in case of Taiwan to assert its sovereign claims. But this time, it has relied on all the three tools of statecraft — military, civilian, and diplomatic — to forward its sovereignty claims on the disputed regions in the East and South China Seas, which makes its posture more aggressive.
While the PRC is trying to capitalize on the opportunity to assert its sovereignty in its neighborhood, the United States, despite being weakened due to multiple military infections at forward bases and vessels, also aimed at exploiting the anger over Beijing’s ambitions. It has responded to the PRC’s aggression by carrying out four freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) around the Paracels and the Spratlys since January 2020. Responding to the PRC’s recent actions, it dispatched an amphibious assault ship, USS America and a guided-missile cruiser, the Bunker Hill, in the contested waters of Malaysia. An Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta, and a third U.S. vessel, the USS Barry, also joined the two U.S. warships in the South China Sea. However, as argued by M. Taylor Fravel in his latest article for the Washington Post, the approach reflects the continuity of dealing with the region, despite the pandemic.
Beijing’s post-pandemic behavior has also ruffled a few feathers of the regional and extraregional actors in the East and Southeast Asian theaters. In a rare criticism, Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines called out the PRC for ramming a Vietnamese vessel. The Philippine’s Department of Foreign Affairs noted that such incidents undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. Both Vietnam and Malaysia, two other countries affected by the Chinese activities in the South China Sea, have highlighted the PRC’s aggressive behavior in their EEZs. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, has also tried to rally ASEAN countries to call out Chinese aggression in a united voice. But it would be difficult to imagine these states overtly balancing against the PRC and thus attempting to change the regional order.
Only Beijing’s escalatory moves — for instance, actions like attempting to change the existing status quo by capturing features occupied by Vietnam or the Philippines, introduction of amphibious capabilities in the South China Sea or declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea — would most probably push the regional states toward overt balancing in the future. Otherwise, there is a very low likelihood of current events having an impact on the existing regional order.
Thus, the United States and its allies need to understand the recent Chinese opportunism in the region as not as a novel approach but a continuation of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive policies with the introduction of new elements in it. The regional order will only be impacted if Beijing makes escalatory moves, which looks unlikely in the near future.
Suyash Desai is a research analyst working on China’s defense and foreign policies at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, India. He writes a weekly newsletter on the Chinese armed forces called the PLA Insight.