THE SAILING IN mid-April of the Liaoning along with the rest of the aircraft carrier’s battle group for the South China Sea on a training exercise was one of the less noted recent incidents in the maritime region where tensions are again rising.
Warships of the United States (see photo above taken in the South China Sea on April 18) and Australia have also arrived in the waters where for much of this month a Chinese survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, has been shadowing an exploration vessel operated by Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company.
Separately, Beijing has created two new administrative districts covering Macclesfield Bank, the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, drawing protests from the Philippines, which claims infringement on its territorial waters. Earlier, Vietnam protested to China over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracels, which is says was rammed by a Chinese vessel.
Repeated confrontation between China and Vietnamese fishing boats has been the low-level frontline in this dispute.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and China, along with Brunei and Taiwan, have conflicting territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea.
Washington already believes Beijing restricts freedom of navigation in the disputed waters of the South China Sea to advance its disputed territorial claims. The latest events will give it further opportunity to accuse Beijing of using the Covid-19 pandemic to step up its intimidatory behaviour towards the other nations in the region.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has already done just that and claimed that Beijing is augmenting its military bases at Fiery Cross Reef (which China calls Yongshu) and Subi Reef (Zhubi), and landed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef.
Beijing is seen in Washington as having taken similar opportunistic advantage of the pandemic over Hong Kong.
None of this bodes well for any progress in the already protracted discussions between ASEAN and China over a South China Sea Code of Conduct — especially as a PLA-Navy spokesman says the Liaoning will now be regularly conducting training exercises in the South China Sea.
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