Chinese naval vessel locked its radar on Philippines ship
A Chinese warship locked its radar guns on a Philippines naval vessel in an act tantamount to signalling an inbound missile, Manila has revealed in a protest lodged amid accusations Beijing is capitalising on the coronavirus pandemic to consolidate its claims over the South China Sea.
The act of aggression is just one of a series by China in the disputed waters in recent weeks just as Southeast Asian neighbours — many of them rival claimants to territory within the resource-rich waters — struggle to deal with the pandemic.
Last weekend, Beijing announced the creation of two new districts to administer the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
That sparked outrage and a second protest in as many weeks from Vietnam, which earlier condemned the sinking of its fishing boat by a Chinese coastguard vessel near the Paracels.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne expressed concern on Thursday over “a number of recent incidents and actions, including reported efforts to disrupt other countries’ resource development activities” and called for all parties to avoid “destabilising activities” that distracted from international efforts to respond to the pandemic.
Malaysia has issued its own unusually direct statement asserting its rights over its own waters amid a standoff between Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and a Malaysian survey vessel conducting exploratory drilling for state oil company Petronas.
But Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein also warned of the risk of “miscalculations” leading to conflict after three US warships accompanied by Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta raised the temperature in the region this week.
The USS America amphibious assault ship and guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill sailed close to where both the Haiyang Dizhi 8 and contracted Malaysian survey vessel West Capella were operating on Tuesday, accompanied by HMAS Parramatta and a third US vessel, the destroyer USS Barry, as part of a joint exercise.
“During the passage exercises, the ships honed interoperability between Australian and US navies, including replenishment at sea, aviation operations, maritime manoeuvres and communications drills,” the Australian Defence Department said in a statement which sought to play down its role.
But Mr Hishamuddin said; “While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region.”
Australian officials have said the exercise was long-planned, but Greg Poling from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said it was likely the US and Australian navies saw an opportunity to “move their exercises closer to Malaysia and send a message to Beijing”.
“Everybody has got something to be mad about here. China’s heightened aggression is not particularly new, but what I think is outrageous is that they’re doing it during a pandemic,” he said. “If ever there was a time for Beijing to take its foot off the necks of Southeast Asian countries, it is now.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, and has marked out the territory in a U-shaped “nine-dash line” on its maps which is not recognised by its neighbours.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute director Peter Jennings said Beijing’s latest moves were a clear escalation but that its hostile act against The Philippines “topped the list of bad behaviour”.
“To me that’s a very definite sign and it’s coming in the context of a range of Chinese activities all the way up into the East China Sea around Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. It’s happening everywhere,’’ Dr Jennings said. “It’s clear all parties are very edgy about the situation right now, as they should be. What I think is happening here is a concerted opportunistic push to try to secure a sense of psychological dominance. ”
Philippines analyst Jay Batongbacal, director for the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China’s apparent “double-faced diplomacy”, ramping up aggression in the South China Sea while offering medical equipment to neighbouring countries, had successfully muted potential protests by the Philippines and other Association of Southeast Asian nations countries.
While Philippines Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin revealed the diplomatic protest in a Wednesday night tweet, he refused to comment further.