The US claims it is simply "business as usual". But its two naval patrols this week in the South China Sea, gunboat-diplomacy assertions of the "freedom of navigation" to keep the international shipping lines open in international waters, have helped raise tensions in the disputed seas. China has denounced the US "provocations", but is accused by the latter and other states of using the cover of the coronavirus crisis to reinforce its ongoing claim to the disputed seas. Last week Beijing announced plans to formally rename and create new administrations for swathes of the sea region.
It claims almost the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory, and has aggressively asserted its stake in recent years. Besides building up and fortifying reefs and islands, Beijing has dispatched survey ships to assert mineral rights and deployed large numbers of coast guard to the area, 2.25 million square kilometres, some of which is up to 2,000 kilometres from the Chinese mainland. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, among others, have claims in the resource-rich sea region that handles about half of the world's commercial shipping and a third of global oil shipping.
Earlier this month a Chinese surveillance vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat that China said had been fishing illegally near the disputed Paracel islands. A Malaysian oil exploration ship has also been harassed by a small flotilla of Chinese ships. They were not the first incidents of their kind, and Chinese and US ships have been involved in repeated near misses, a form of shadow boxing that could easily tip into military exchanges. China has refused to participate in arbitration or to accept an international court ruling that its claims have no basis in international law.
Beijing has been trying to win friends internationally and escape blame for the early spread of the Covid-19 pandemic by doling out aid and medical supplies around the world. But its diplomatic efforts at international acceptability are likely to be undermined by such classic hard-power regional bullying.