COVID-19 not stopping 'steady increase of Chinese harassment' in South China Sea

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 14) — China has so far put up two research stations and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While these actions were widely seen as China taking advantage of the global health crisis, "none of these is new," according to Washington-based think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

"There's nothing different today that China wasn't doing six months ago," AMTI director Gregory Poling said in an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. 

"It has been steadily increasing its presence... it's been steadily increasing the frequency of harassment of South East Asian oil and gas operations, fishing operations, etc.," Poling said, adding that China is showing no signs of stopping in order to establish control of contested waters.

"I think people are a little more scandalized. They have assumed that amid the global pandemic, we would see a calming and that hasn't happened," he added.

Poling said deployment of Chinese vessels has been "pretty consistent" around Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island since December 2018 until last month.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Jr. also said last month that more than 130 Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted in the area since the start of the year.

"We would expect that they will continue to deploy there," Esperon said in March, some three months after the deadly coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan City, China in December 2019.

Last week, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs expressed concern over reports that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel in waters off Paracel Islands, claimed by both China and Vietnam, in the South China Sea.

The department expressed solidarity with Vietnam, remembering that it was their fishermen who helped Filipinos onboard the fishing boat Gem-Ver which got involved in a similar incident last year.

Poling said that while Chinese President Xi Jinping's hands may be tied to addressing the coronavirus crisis, he has local authorities who could assert Beijing's sovereignty through maritime aggression in their areas.

Poling warned that there would be loss of lives "sooner or later," if this keeps on happening.

He reiterated that the Philippines should ask for support from the international community to put political and economic pressure on China, but acknowledged that this is unlikely to happen under the Duterte government.

"Nobody in Europe wants to talk about South China Sea because nobody in Manila wants them to," Poling said.

Duterte has nurtured ties with China despite its continued aggression in the West Philippine Sea -- areas Manila claims and occupies in the South China Sea. Xi rejects Manila's arbitral win that voided Beijing's sweeping claim to the global waterway, and convinced Duterte to "shelve differences" to make way for joint oil and gas exploration.

Poling added that the negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a Code of Conduct to establish what claimants should and should not do in contested waters are a "failed process" now that no agreement has been reached after years of talks.