Chinese aggression persists despite coronavirus, Duterte trust

American and Australian warships have come together in the South China Sea for joint drills, as China continued to aggressively assert its claim of owning the entire area amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. (Photo from US Pacific Fleet Twitter account)

As the Philippines and the world struggle against the spread of COVID-19, China is making the most of the distraction by continuing its military buildup in the South China Sea.

The Chinese Coast Guard and paramilitary vessels have carried on their harassment of fishing boats, military ships and oil and gas rigs, and had even sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat earlier this month.

The Philippines has expressed its support for Vietnam after Hanoi protested against what it called the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese coastguard vessel in the disputed South China Sea last April 3.

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila expressed deep concern over the reported sinking of the boat off the Paracel Islands. Eight fishermen on board at the time were picked up alive by the Chinese vessel and returned to two other Vietnamese shipping boats nearby.  The DFA said that the incident happened ‘at a time when a common approach was crucial in confronting the coronavirus pandemic.’

The DFA also recalled that on June 9 last year, 22 Filipino fishermen were left at sea after a Chinese vessel sank their boat at Reed Bank. They were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel.  “Our own similar experience revealed how much trust in a friendship is lost by it and how much trust was created by Vietnam’s humanitarian act of directly saving the lives of our Filipino fishermen,” the department said.

“There’s no apparent pause or reduction at all” in Chinese activity in the South China Sea, added Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “It appears to be business as usual for the PLA, and for that matter, the China Coast Guard as well.”

Last month, the Chinese navy carried out combat exercises with submarines, fighter jets and missile boats.  The drills were conducted as a U.S. aircraft carrier in Guam was sidelined — its crew members and former commander sickened with COVID-19.

It can also be recalled that last March 20, Chinese state media proudly announced several instances of Beijing donating aid against the coronavirus: sending protective equipment to Italy, testing kits to Ethiopia, protective medical suits to South Korea among others.

On the same day however, the official New China News Agency published a report entitled “New research stations come into operation on Nansha (Spratly) Islands,” describing the opening of two civilian labs to study the marine environment in the South China Sea.  The report underscored the ongoing and heated dispute surrounding the waters, where the Chinese military continues to fortify a series of artificial islands to support military facilities.

“COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust. In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents,” the DFA said.