How China has ramped up aggression in South China Sea amid the coronavirus pandemic

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As China was scrambling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that ravaged parts of the country before crossing international boundaries, it was asserting its presence in the South China Sea through a continued campaign of aggression and harassment.

Despite the pandemic, Beijing has not reduced its yearslong activities in the crucial waterway, through which a third of the world's shipping passes annually. Several islands in the area and coastal waters have become the center of a fierce territorial dispute among several countries -- China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, which all claim rights to oil exploration there.

China claims nearly every island in the South China Sea and has constructed other islands with military outposts, worrying other nations in the region and the United States.

As the world continues to be preoccupied with containing the coronavirus pandemic, China recently strengthened its grip in the area by creating new administrative districts -- the Xisha District and Nansha District -- in Sansha City, a prefecture-level unity on Woody Island, according to Chinese state media.

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The pandemic offers China an opportunity to rachet up its aggression while the rest of the world remains on lockdown and focuses on fighting the fast-spreading virus, Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, told Fox News.

"China’s ultimate goal, or as Chinese President Xi Jinping calls, 'the China Dream,' is to 'restore' China’s place at the very top of the world’s hierarchy of nations," Vuving said. "As the lifeline of Asia runs through the South China Sea, whoever controls the South China Sea will dominate Asia, and with the world’s center of gravity shifting to Asia, whoever dominates Asia will rule the world."

Washington has accused Beijing of stepping up its "bullying tactics" in the disputed area while other claimants are distracted with containing the fast-spreading virus within their borders.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday accused China of using the world's focus on COVID-19 to assert itself in the disputed waters. He said Beijing had dispatched a flotilla to intimidate other nations from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development.

"Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction, from China’s new unilateral announcement of administrative districts over disputed islands and maritime areas in the South China Sea, its sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel earlier this month, and its 'research stations' on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef," Pompeo said.

"It is important to highlight how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exploiting the world’s focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behavior," he added.

Earlier this month, a Chinese Coast Guard ship reportedly rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. Beijing claims the boat had been fishing illegally. The ship's crew was rescued.

China's provocations have raised serious concerns in Washington, where leaders and lawmakers have sounded alarms over its handling of the outbreak.

American and Australian warships were dispatched to the South China Sea this week amid a monthslong standoff between Chinese and Malaysian ships. The dispute began in December 2019 when Malaysia's state-owned oil company contracted a ship, the West Capella, to explore areas on its continental shelf, which it claims, along with China and Vietnam.

Things quickly escalated on April 16 when a Chinese surveyor ship known as the Haiyang Dizhi 8 arrived with a coast guard ship. The Haiyang Dizhi 8 had previously shadowed ships conducting similar operations off Vietnam.

The action prompted Washington to deploy two warships -- the USS Bunker Hill, a guided-missile cruiser, and the USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer -- to the region, along with an Australian naval vessel, the Navy said in a statement.

The U.S. has operated naval ships in the South China Sea for decades in an effort to keep the peace.

“While international law guarantees the freedom of navigation, the presence of warships and vessels in the South China Sea has the potential to increase tensions that in turn may result in miscalculations which may affect peace, security and stability in the region,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told Reuters.

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Beijing has slowly begun to emerge from the coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. In recent weeks, China has turned to its propaganda machine to position itself as the global model for recovery.

Governments, particularly the U.S., have criticized the Chinese Communist Party's mishandling of the outbreak and for failing to alert the world of the crisis sooner. Pompeo also called for Southeast Asian leaders to pressure China to close down wet markets.