Image from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative – CSIS (

A flurry of protests took place in the beginning of April among states that have conflicting claims on the South China Sea, indicating the very volatile and tense situation in the strategic waterway at a time when the world is struggling to control the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest flareup was precipitated by the ramming and sinking of the Vietnamese fishing boat, Tran Hong Tho, by a Chinese coast guard vessel near Woody Island in the Paracel, a group of islands occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Huge Chinese air and naval bases sit on the main island.

Hanoi has demanded the release of eight Vietnamese fishermen taken into custody by Chinese authorities and compensation for the fishermen’s losses.

Manila, which recalled a similar boat incident in Reed Bank less than a year ago, issued a statement in solidarity with its Southeast Asian neighbor, saying the Chinese action did not contribute to peace and stability in the region. It called the incident a “trust issue.”

In June 2019, a Chinese maritime vessel rammed and sank a local fishing boat, Gem-Ver II, but abandoned 22 fishermen at sea. They were rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat. Manila also demanded apology and compensation from Beijing.

Beijing responded by reiterating its claim on almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year.

China’s territorial claim was based on historical records, which includes the rocky outcrop Scarborough Shoal, about 135 nautical miles west of Zambales on the main island of Luzon and well within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Both China and the Philippines recognize Unclos.

On April 7, a few days after the fishing boat incident, Hanoi fired another protest against Beijing. Beijing sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations, answering Manila’s protest. Hanoi rejected the Chinese claims based on its excessive nine-dash-line map.

The claim has been nullified by a decision won by Manila in July 2016 from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

Security experts say China was taking advantage of the situation to assert its sovereignty over the an area believed to be rich in deposits of energy resources and an abundant fishing ground, as countries around the world were busy trying to stop the coronavirus from further spreading and disrupting their economies.

China has emerged from the pandemic with fewer fatalities than the United States, its chief rival. There were more infections and deaths in the US, Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom and Iran than China, where the disease originated in December 2019.

The highly contagious respiratory disease has kept the US military at home, suspending forward deployments as troops were enlisted to help federal authorities battle an unseen enemy and focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations.

Two of its major surface combatant vessels, including a nuclear-powered carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, were hit by the virus. About one-fifth of its 5,000 crew, including the captain, were placed under quarantine in Guam, including.

The virus has dented America’s “ironclad” defense in the Indo-Pacific region where China is slowly expanding its influence, widening its anti-access and area denial (A2AD) operations to push away the US military from its stomping ground.

The US military became overstretched when it emerged as a sole superpower after the demise of its old rival, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 1990s. Washington needed allies and partners to counter the rise of China.

As early as 2007, it convinced China’s traditional enemies – India and Japan – to join a quadrilateral security dialogue with Australia to check Beijing advances in the region.

The “Quad” mechanism suffered a setback after Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd withdrew from the security dialogue, expressing concern over Australia’s role in the grouping that could be seen as anti-China move.

In 2010, his successor and party-mate, Julia Gilliard, reversed his policy and seven years later, in a summit meeting in Manila, Australia reaffirmed its commitments to the Quad mechanism with India, Japan and United States.

Last year, Washington expanded its network of security allies and partners in the Asia and Pacific area by introducing its Indo-Pacific Strategy to further reassure countries in the region of its “ironclad” security commitments.

In February, US President Donald Trump embarked on a visit to India, cementing broadening and deepening security ties between the two largest democracies in the world. Although it resulted in a smaller $3 billion arms deal, it was significant because it could signal a shifting balance of power.

Washington has gained a nuclear-armed partner to counter Beijing, which was trying to gain access to the Indian Ocean by courting Bangladesh and Myanmar. It already has an outpost in Djibouti and is trying to set up a base in India’s arch rival Pakistan, an equally nuclear-armed country.

Washington cannot do it alone and it needs a reliable partner and India is willing and capable to challenge China’s supremacy not only in its own backyard in the Indian Ocean but in the South China Sea as well.

With American blessings, New Delhi can expand its power projection by sending its navy to the disputed South China Sea. India has started port calls in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.

The South China Sea is already one of the world’s hotspots as a lot of navies patrol the strategic waterway. China and the five other claimant-states have been operating in the area.

The US and its allies, like Australia, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom, have ships and aircraft regularly conducting freedom of navigation operations (Fonops) and overflights in the South China Sea.

Russia and other European powers are in the area crowding the disputed sea, and India’s entry could only fuel tension and increase the chances of an accident.

Southeast Asian nations are also forced to choose which side to take after Washington unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US military is even trying to sweeten the pot by unveiling a $20-billion funding called “Regain the Advantage” plan to help allies and partners strengthen their defenses and support the US counter-operations against China.

What the region needs at the moment is to de-militarize the disputed sea and turn the South China Sea into a zone of peace, prosperity and stability.

Manila’s recent call on Beijing to restore trust and behave as a responsible member of the international community could be the first step to defuse tension.

China and Asean must focus on cooperation and complete as soon as possible the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea and dismantle military installations in the disputed waters to avoid potential conflicts.

South China Sea does not need the Indian navy. China and the US military must also disengage from the area. Cooperation and environment protection must replace armed rivalries not only among claimant-states but among the extra-regional powers as well.

In this period of difficulty, when the world faces a common enemy, the coronavirus, heightened military tension is the last things the region needs.