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EDITORIAL | Like a Looter at a Fire, Beijing Encroaches on the South China Sea Amid the Pandemic

Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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On April 19, the Chinese government announced that it had established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea ― one for the Paracel (Xisha) Islands and the other for the Spratly (Nansha) Islands. The two areas will be under the administrative umbrella of Sansha City in Hainan province.

 

When China established Sansha City in July 2012, it unilaterally declared that it would have administrative control of all islands, atolls, and surrounding seas in the two million square kilometers in the South China Sea that Beijing claims (only 20 kilometers of which is actually land).

 

The two newly established districts will have their own “district people’s governments,” which claims control of the islands and surrounding waters. (RELATED ARTICLE: As the World Fights the Wuhan Virus, China Installs ‘Jurisdiction’ Over Disputed South China Sea)

 

China’s aggressive moves to establish control over this region, which is critical to the flow of international commerce, come despite the fact that in July 2016 an international tribunal in the Hague found that Beijing’s expansive claims there have no legal basis. Specifically, the tribunal ruled that under international law China’s construction of artificial islands offer no basis for claims of sovereignty.

 

In light of that ruling by the Hague tribunal, China obviously has no right to establish the new administrative districts. Beijing should immediately scrap these arrangements.

 

Vietnam also has territorial claims regarding the Paracels and other parts of the South China Sea.

 

On April 19, the Foreign Ministry of Vietnam lambasted China’s moves, declaring them “invalid and not recognized by anyone.” It demanded that Beijing cancel the creation of the new districts.

 

China has been rushing construction of airfields and ports on the artificial islands it has reclaimed in the South China Sea. We cannot allow China to continue to install missiles, radar, and other military hardware on them in order to transform them into military bases in the area.

 

Just two weeks before the announcement of the new administrative zones, on April 2 a China Coast Guard vessel had rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracels. (RELATED STORY: China Continues Military Provocations in the Pacific As Coronavirus Pandemic Rages)

 

At the same time, since it refuses to recognize Chinese control of the South China Sea, the United States has been conducting a “freedom of navigation” campaign of deterrence by having Aegis missile-equipped destroyers and other warships transit the area. In solidarity, Great Britain, France, and Australia have also dispatched warships and aircraft to the South China Sea.

 

At the moment, the United States and other nations throughout the world are preoccupied with dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic.

 

On April 21, the U.S. military announced that two warships, including a cruiser, had been sent to the area. Nevertheless, with the crews of some of its aircraft carriers being ravaged by the virus, there is no denying that the capacity of the U.S. military to respond to threats has been reduced.

 

It is no accident that China chose this very time to establish the new administrative districts. Beijing’s rush to take advantage of the “vacuum of power” in the South China Sea is akin to a robber rushing to the scene of a fire.

 

In criticizing China’s taking advantage of the distraction and vulnerability of other parties to establish the administrative districts, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said Beijing should “remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic.”

 

During an April 21 phone conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi expressed concerns about the establishment of the administrative districts. But isn’t China certain to turn a deaf ear to mere expressions of concern?

 

In order to return the South China Sea region to its former status as a free and safe maritime zone governed by law, Japan should call on other nations to collectively express the ire of the international community and stand up to Beijing’s bullying. 

 

(Click here to read the original editorial in Japanese.)

 

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun