Beneath ‘mask diplomacy,’ China expands in disputed South China Sea

By Sara Gómez Armas and Eric San Juan

Manila/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Apr 23 (efe-epa).- China has allegedly been using its “mask diplomacy” – donating healthcare materials and deploying medical personnel to various countries during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – as a smokescreen to silently expand its presence in the disputed waters of South China sea.

While the world focuses on dealing with the pandemic and preparing for what is being touted as the worst economic crisis in decades, Beijing is using the distraction to continue its military expansion, having established two new districts in the disputed territories, a move that irked its neighbors, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.

“China’s intent is to so overwhelm the region with its Navy, its Coast Guard, its militia, its fishing fleets,” Gregory Polling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative – a Washington-based group that monitors activity in the region’s waters – told reporters.

“Beijing is not going to stop. The strategy is pressing Southeast Asian governments to decide there is no reasonable choice but surrender, that they should just take whatever deal that Beijing is putting on the table,” he said in a recent video-conference with the foreign press in the Philippines.

China had announced on Saturday that it had created two new districts in the city of Sansha, situated in the southern Haian province, which cover territories in the Spratly islands, the Scarborough atoll and the Paracel archipelago, disputed regions in the South China Sea partly claimed by neighboring countries.

Echoing Poling, Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the University of New South Wales (Australia) told the state-run Vietnam News Agency that the expansion was “an illegal provocation.”

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei claim parts of the strategically important waters, which serve as a passage to 30 percent of global trade and house 12 percent of global fish reserves apart from oil and gas deposits, although China claims sovereignty over the entire region.

In 2016, the Hague’s permanent arbitration court ruled in the Philippines’ favor over its territorial claims on the Scarborough atoll and part of the Spratly archipelago, although Beijing has not acknowledged them.

On Wednesday the Philippines lodged two fresh diplomatic protests with the Chinese Embassy in Manila over the creation of the new districts and a recent incident with a Philippine navy vessel.

The Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, who had registered multiple protests in 2019 over Chinese ships entering Philippine waters without permission, tweeted about Beijing’s “violations of international law & Philippine sovereignty.”

Manila was also protesting against an incident on Feb. 17, when a Chinese warship allegedly entered the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and pointed a radar gun at a Philippine navy ship.

“The incident can be characterized as the Chinese warship targeting” the Philippine vessel, which is “unacceptable in common military practice because it is a hostile act that can lead to a miscalculation, and then to an escalation, and then ultimately, conflict,” opined Jose Antonio Custodio, a defense analyst and former consultant of the Philippines’ National Security Council.

Although the Philippine department of foreign affairs and the armed forces have denounced China’s intrusions, President Rodrigo Duterte – who has realigned his foreign policy closer to Beijing in exchange for generous investments – has not commented on the issue, while thanking China for donating medical equipment and sending doctors to fight COVID-19.

However, despite close political and economic ties with China, Vietnam has firmly opposed Chinese expansion in the disputed islands, and again responded strongly this time.

Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement on Sunday that China’ acts were “not conducive to the development of the friendly relations between countries and further complicate the situation in (…) the region.”

“Vietnam demands that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and annul its wrongful decisions and not repeat similar activities in the future,” she said, citing legal and historical bases for Hanoi’s claims.

Tensions between Beijing and Hanoi had already peaked at the beginning of this month when the Vietnamese government accused a Chinese patrol vessel of sinking a Vietnamese fishing with eight crew members onboard, close to the Paracel islands.

China justified the action by alleging that the fishing boat had rammed into the patrol boat, a claim denied by Vietnam, which received support from the United States and the Philippines, among others.

“We call on the People’s Republic of China to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea,” the US State Department said in a statement. EFE-EPA

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