Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, on the other hand, already offer key indicationsChina apparently has a motto: "What we say is ours - is ours. What you say is yours - is ours."
of what this next stage of geopolitics in Southeast Asia will look like. As China projects its power amid the pandemic, Southeast Asian governments will increasingly see their economies and development defined by how they embrace or contest Beijing’s agenda.
China asserts rights to 90% of the land, water and seabed that falls within a boundary known as the nine-dash line, which stretches 2,000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland and comes within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. To support China’s claims, its military has also built over 3,000 acres of artificial islands over the past 10 years.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared the claim illegal in 2016 after the Philippines brought a case under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. The court also determined that China’s moves to build artificial islands, still ongoing, are illegal under international law, due in part to their extremely detrimental environmental impacts.
Last week’s incident shows that China is doing all it can to pursue its geopolitical and economic agenda during the pandemic. Beijing isn’t waiting to see how the effects of COVID-19 play out. In cases where it can pursue “face mask diplomacy,” China is stepping into a new role as benefactor—sometimes at a cost, but without all the debt attached to Belt and Road projects.
China is using the time to turn its claims to the energy-rich territory into geopolitical realities. In late March, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources announced that it had extracted a world record-breaking amount of natural gas from gas hydrates in the South China Sea.
In the days prior to the incident last Thursday, Radio Free Asia reported that another Chinese coast guard ship was patrolling in an area of the South China Sea near the Philippines, inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“As countries look inward or are distracted [by the COVID-19 pandemic], like the U.S. and Japan, China has taken advantage of that by increasing its activities in the South China Sea,” said Jose Antonio Custodio, defense analyst at the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Developmental Studies in Manila. “We may soon see more unilateral exploitation of our EEZ.”
Southeast Asian governments are already seeking support from one another as well as China to combat COVID-19—both in terms of the virus and its economic and development impacts. As ASEAN or as individual states, they’re unable to challenge Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea.
This is indicative of how COVID-19 is cementing a geopolitics in which Southeast Asia’s prospects for development, security and trade are dictated by how its leaders support or reject Beijing’s goals. However long the pandemic lasts, ASEAN’s options for the future will be increasingly defined by how well governments balance domestic and Chinese interests and how well they partner with Beijing.
In contrast to China, which seeks to shut off access to the South China Sea, even (or perhaps especially) to its neighbors, the U.S. and its allies have tried to keep the sea lines of commerce open and free. If there is any doubt that China is seeking to upset several hundred years of history, you don't have to look too far.