As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil world health and politics, China is trying to appear as though it is leading the international effort to combat the pandemic. But instead of sharing its data on the coronavirus and cooperating with scientists to create treatments and a vaccine, the Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the very crisis it is responsible for creating for geopolitical gain. It is undertaking aggressive actions to undermine stability in the South China Sea (SCS), enhancing its own control of critical trade routes and resource-rich waters.
With the coronavirus dominating the attention of governments around the world, China has taken advantage. It established new research stations on illegal artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. It purposely rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel, began operating various military aircraft from Fiery Cross Reef and increased provocative fighter aircraft patrols around Taiwan. Currently, China is operating one of its government survey ships along with China Coast Guard escorts in the mineral-rich and disputed territorial waters some 200 nautical miles off the coast of East Malaysia in order to harass and bully Malaysian drilling exploration activities.
Additionally, as indicated in a recent U.S. Department of State report, there are signs that Beijing has been preparing to conduct – and has likely already conducted – underground nuclear tests in clear violation of the zero-yield standard that China and the United States signed as part of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Given China’s ongoing nefarious actions, it is reassuring to see that the American public is beginning to come to grips with the threat posed by Beijing. A March Pew Research Center survey found that 62 percent of Americans view China’s power and influence as a major threat, a 14-point increase from 2018. And two-thirds (66 percent) say they view China negatively, a record high that includes majorities of Republicans (72 percent) and Democrats (62 percent). Public support from both sides of the aisle is essential to ensure that policy makers and military leaders can continue to ramp up the pressure on Beijing to act in accordance with international norms.
And while America’s medical experts and political leaders must deal with the domestic health crisis, now is the time for the United States to step up its messaging and actions to the world, highlighting that the U.S. is still in a global leadership role and will not tolerate China’s coercive and deceptive actions. To accomplish this, the United States, along with allies and partners, must aggressively pursue the facts surrounding the virus and broadcast those results quickly and publicly. The United States must also continue to work transparently with the global community to combat the disease.
At the same time, the United States must stress to China in diplomatic and public channels and through increased military deterrence operations that it has not taken its eyes off of the SCS and the Taiwan Strait. Recent actions by the U.S. Navy, such as the deployment of the USS America amphibious assault ship and the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill, are strong demonstrations of continued operational presence in the area. They promote freedom of navigation and overflight and the international rules and norms that underpin security and stability in the region.
Despite these recent operations, there is room to expand this strategy. Ultimately the United States should strive to establish a Multinational Combined Task Force aimed at checking China’s aggression in the South China Sea. But in the immediate future the U.S. needs to balance the effects of the health crisis on its forces, which are real, with needed increases in multilateral exercises and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). Such actions are critical in their ability to disrupt and diminish long-term Chinese goals and are now more than ever strategically significant as Beijing seeks to exploit the world health crisis.
There is still much to debate and learn about the origin of the coronavirus pandemic. But we know that China is guilty of covering up early news of the disease and not taking appropriate action to stop the global spread. And make no mistake, China is exploiting the pandemic that they created to seed their communist values and influence, undermine international laws and norms, and create dependencies among countries around the world.
Now is not the time to give the Chinese Communist Party the opportunity to further its objectives and make America and the world less stable and secure.
Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dalton, U.S. Navy, is the federal executive fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He has conducted intelligence and cyberspace operations focused on multiple theaters throughout the world. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.