Chinese Navy’s forays spike amid Covid-19 pandemic

China, the first country to be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, has started pushing its People”s Liberation Army Navy”s activities in South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean Region to gain dominance in the areas, sources said on Saturday.

The 35th Chinese Anti-Piracy Escort Force (APEF) has recently replaced the 34th APEF deployed in the Gulf of Aden. “Because of it, around seven People”s Liberation Army Navy ships are in the Indian Ocean Region,” said the sources.

The sources also found that China is operating 4 to 5 research vessels in the Indian Ocean Region at present.

A senior government official said that even though China was the first country to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, it seems to have had no major effect on the PLA-Navy”s activities.

“Additionally, a large number of PLA-Navy/Coast Guard assets, maritime militia and survey ships are deployed in the contested waters of the South China Sea,” said the official.

Intelligence agencies have reported to the government that the US and French navies, affected by coronavirus-infested crew on warships while they were deployed in South China Sea, have vacated the space for the PLA-Navy to push for its dominance and expansion in those waters.

This has enabled the Chinese government to sense the vacuum and up its ante in the South China Sea over the past few weeks.

Expansion in South China Sea

On March 29, the Chinese increased surveillance flights by PLA-Air Force and PLA-Navy in the South China Sea while simultaneously complaining about the increase in Freedom of Navigation patrols of the US Navy.

On April 3, the Vietnamese lodged an official protest with the Chinese following the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel, near its disputed waters with China.

Continuing with its cartographic invasion of the South China Sea, China also divided the administration of the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands into the Xisha and Nansha sub-divisions, which are the Chinese traditional names for these two disputed island territories.

“The Chinese have also renamed more than 80 geographic features — often underwater at times of high tides — with traditional Chinese names,” the official explained.

Maritime Disputes

On March 17, the Chinese directed their research ship Haiyang Dizhi-8 escorted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel to shadow a vessel — MV West Capella — engaged by the Malaysian state-owned oil company Petronas.

Concurrently, tensions between China and Indonesia were also simmering following a series of incidents over fishing activities in the North Natuna Sea, where a dispute festers between China and Indonesia.

The official explained that it is quite likely that the “Chinese have been emboldened by the reports of the spread of coronavirus among frontline fleet units of the Pacific Fleet, especially the US strike carrier Theodore Roosevelt.”

The Chinese also carried out night combat exercises off Taiwan for the first time on March 16, and ordered the carrier Liaoning to transit east of Taiwan and carry out training manoeuvres in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

There appears little doubt that China intends to exploit the prevailing situation and use the assessed policy paralysis in world leadership to its advantage in the Indo-Pacific, senior officers in intelligence agencies explained.

Debt-trap diplomacy

For the littoral nations of the Indian Ocean, the Chinese enterprise continues to roll on “debt-trap diplomacy”, which has become the norm with countries in a deep embrace with China.

These Chinese actions would likely gain a firmer footing in the wake of the pandemic as governments look to reinforce their weakened economies.

Seeing this, the Indian government, to ensure strategic preparedness, has started to focus on providing the Indian Navy with the necessary tools to blunt the growing Chinese capability on sea.

The official explained that the Indian Navy, which receives the smallest budget share amongst its sister services, needs to be nurtured to counter any belligerence on sea.

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