Apr 22, 2020 - World

Amid pandemic, China expands control over contested waters

An illustration of a hand coloring the China sea red.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China announced on April 18 it has created two new municipal districts to administer disputed regions in the South China Sea that are also claimed by other countries in the region. Chinese ships also trailed a Malaysian vessel operating in waters near Malaysia.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party may try to "solidify and strengthen" its maritime claims while the world is busy dealing with the pandemic, said James Kraska, a professor of international maritime law at the U.S. Naval War College.

  • "All countries that are concerned about China embellishing their position in the South China Sea and East China Sea should be concerned that this would be an opportunity while countries are preoccupied with COVID-19," Kraska told Axios.

Context: Numerous Southeast Asian countries have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, but China claims almost the entire body of water and has built up massive artificial islands there, constructing airstrips and other military installations.

  • A 2016 ruling by an international court at the Hague stated that many of China's claims in the disputed waters have no basis in international law.
  • Beijing has ignored the ruling.

In recent days, the U.S. sent two warships into Malaysian waters in a show of force.

What they're saying: China "should cease its bullying behavior and refrain from engaging in this type of provocative and destabilizing activity,” the U.S. State Department told Reuters on April 18.

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