I. The Big Story: Beijing Pushing the Envelope in the South China Sea?
At the moment, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is attempting to sell the generosity of its approach during the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of incidents in China’s neighbourhood. The epicentre of the escalatory events, which started in the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, has now shifted to the South China Sea. In the last week of March, a Chinese fishing vessel “collided” with a Vietnamese fishing boat, with Hanoi claiming that the fishing boat was rammed by the Chinese vessel. In the same week, the Chinese state department announced two “new research stations” on military bases it built on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef. Most recently, the Chinese survey ship, Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, which is ill famous for its “research and exploration activities,” left the Sanya naval base for the South China Sea. The Malaysian coastguard confirmed the survey vessel’s presence in its EEZ (near waters claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia). Under international law, a research vessel would need to request permission before operating within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coast.
The survey ship was seen tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company, Petronas, in the disputed waters. On Friday, vessel-tracking software showed that two coastguard ships, the Zhongguohaijing 1105 and 4203, were sailing alongside the Chinese survey vessel. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in its latest report, claims that China operated more research and survey vessels than any other country and that there is little to distinguish between those engaged in purely civilian research and those doing so on behalf of the military. But the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8 was conducting normal activities, and accused U.S. officials of smearing Beijing.
Meanwhile, if this was not enough, the Chinese authorities, on Sunday, released standard names for 25 islands and reefs as well as 55 undersea geographic entities in the South China Sea. A joint announcement of the names on Sunday from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of Civil Affairs came a day after China established new administrative districts for the contested Spratly and Paracel island chains. China, before this, had released such a list in 1983 when it named 287 geographical features across the disputed waterway.
Responding to these chain of events, US’s amphibious assault ship, the America and a guided-missile cruiser, the Bunker Hill, entered the contested waters of Malaysia. An Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta and a third U.S. vessel, the destroyer USS Barry, joined the two US warships in the South China Sea. “As a part of a joint exercise, the ships honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment-at-sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills,” said Australian Defence Department in a statement to Reuters.