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Editorial: China must not exploit pandemic to escalate tensions in South China Sea

China is heightening tensions in the South China Sea, where it has territorial disputes with neighboring countries. China’s moves to expand its interests and military influence, as if taking advantage of a situation in which every country is preoccupied with dealing with the new coronavirus, cannot be overlooked.


The South China Sea is an important sea lane in terms of transporting oil resources and other materials. China has claimed sovereignty over nearly the entire sea and proceeded with land reclamation activities to build artificial islands for use as military strongholds. Since the beginning of this month, Beijing has further stepped up its activities toward that end.


China announced that it has established new administrative districts, called the Xisha and Nansha districts, under Sansha City in Hainan Province as the administrative body to exercise jurisdiction over islands in the region.


China has built runways on Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef, where the two administrative districts’ governments are located. It is likely that China intends to strengthen its support for military supplies and other materials to the units deployed there through the districts’ governments.


The Chinese Navy announced this month that China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning had conducted exercises in the South China Sea. In addition, an incident took place in which a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed into and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat.


Vietnam, which has territorial disputes with China, lodged a protest. The arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims in 2016. China’s behavior, which neglects the rule of law as well as expands its maritime hegemony, will ultimately lead to growing distrust in China among the international community.


The first outbreak and spread of the new coronavirus took place in China. Although the number of people infected with the virus has drastically decreased, worries about a second wave of infections and its economy linger in that nation. It can be pointed out that the intensified activities in the South China Sea are also aimed at diverting people’s attention.


As a countermeasure to China’s moves, the United States has been deploying military vessels near the Chinese-made islands to uphold freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. U.S. and Australian forces also conducted a joint exercise this month.


What concerns us is the fact that the number of infections has been growing among sailors on U.S. aircraft carriers and other military personnel. If the infectious disease further affects the U.S. Navy as a whole, it could lead to a decline in the naval deployment capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region.


To prevent China’s unilateral maritime advance and preserve the stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it is important for the U.S. military to maintain its involvement there without creating a power vacuum.


Tensions have been observed around Japan as well. The number of Chinese government vessels that entered the waters off the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture increased by 57% in January-March from the same period last year. Chinese fighter jets and bombers have flown close to Taiwan in a bid to intimidate Taipei.


The Self-Defense Forces have conducted joint exercises with U.S. forces in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, confirming its rapid response posture. It is indispensable for the government to pursue reinforcement of the Japan-U.S. alliance even while focusing on implementing measures against the infectious disease.


— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 30, 2020.

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