China is already under scrutiny for its role in the spread of the coronavirus pandemic around the world, after the virus originated within its borders. But now, just as the virus reaches its peak in the U.S., the Chinese are reportedly looking to gain a strategic advantage in the contested South China Sea, increasing military drills and energy exploration there in recent days.
Rodger Baker, senior analyst at the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, believes China’s behavior in that area bears watching. “The Chinese are looking at the United States and seeing a lot of U.S. Navy ships potentially offline for a couple of weeks or longer (due to Covid-19) and using that as a way to push themselves out front in the region,” says Baker. “China’s very concerned about this part of the world–they’re trying to shape a dominant position in that area.”
Despite the Pentagon’s attention to the Covid-19 outbreak, including the deployment of two naval hospital ships off the coasts of New York and California, the U.S. military is not taking its eye off the South China Sea. “(China) has been very active within that space in the last couple of weeks, but quite frankly, so has the United States,” says Baker. Indeed, the U.S. Navy conducted its own military drills in the South China Sea in recent days, which included a missile launch.
China is also using the pandemic for a propaganda war, offering to help U.S. allies who are struggling with Covid-19. “With the pandemic subsiding in China, they’re able to play both sides,” says Baker. “They can play the aggressive side in the region militarily, while also going around and selectively helping other countries by providing medical supplies, PPE (personal protective equipment), and even medical personnel.”