On April 18, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs unilaterally announced the establishment of two new administrative structures in the South China Sea: Xisha district, covering the Paracel Islands and Macclesfield Bank, and Nansha district, covering the Spartly Islands, both of which are also claimed by Vietnam. The new administrative districts are to be under the authority of the local government in Sansha, a city located on Woody Island which is administratively part of Hainan province. The Xisha district will be based in Sansha while the Nansha district will operate from Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. The idea behind the new districts  is to make administrative control in the area more effective, allowing for more manpower and resources to be dedicated to the management of the islands. More effective control can also facilitate the building of additional infrastructure and enhance China’s military presence in the area.

The day after the China’s announcement, a spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly protested and denounced China’s action as illegal:

Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over the archipelagos. Vietnam’s consistent stance is to strongly protest the formation of the so-called ‘Sansha City’ and related behavior as they seriously violate Vietnam’s sovereignty, are unrecognized, have no value and are not beneficial to the friendly relationship between countries, while complicating the situation in the East Sea [South China Sea], the region and the world. Vietnam requests that China respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, cancel wrong decisions that are relevant to such actions, and not repeat similar actions in the future.”

No one expected this year to be easy, especially not Vietnam itself. The country is juggling its chairmanship of ASEAN with a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and preparing for its own National Party Congress in 2021, which will be the venue for changes in key political positions—all very absorbing undertakings. But 2020 is proving to be more challenging than any had anticipated.

Vietnam’s relations with its biggest neighbor have grown tense over maritime disputes. Hanoi has been vigilant with respect to China’s coercive practices at sea and aware of the pressure to both act as a neutral ASEAN chair and still defend its own national interests. China has had a track record of coercing incoming ASEAN chairs ahead of their chairmanship (which was demonstrated in the incidents around the Vanguard Bank last year), but rarely did so during their year of duty. This is clearly changing.

In early April, a China Coast Guard ship sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands. Vietnamese representatives protested and put forth a formal complaint at the United Nations over China’s actions. Moreover, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 research vessel—the same that repeatedly violated Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone last year—has been surveying areas of seabed claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia. In a rare gesture of Southeast Asian solidarity, the Philippines has voiced their diplomatic support for Vietnam. China’s agencies have, meanwhile, upped the war of words and pointed the finger at Vietnam, calling on Hanoi to “exercise more restraint rather than acting aggressively.”

Vietnam has gained international praise and regional recognition for its ability to counter China’s recurrent attempts at coercion. Its successful containment of COVID-19 thus far has only strengthened its position and reputation internationally. Vietnam, unlike fellow UN Security Council member Indonesia, seems to have the strategic mindset and bandwidth to look beyond the immediate health crisis.

The United States took an unusually decisive stance, with the State Department issuing a statement labelling the ramming incident in the Paracels “the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbours in the South China Sea.” But no other international actors have thus far taken a similarly strong position.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has not led Beijing to reduce pressure on the South China Sea, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. Strategists have warned about how crises offer opportunities for those who seek quick wins, and Beijing has taken the current opportunity to advance its claims while everyone is preoccupied fighting the pandemic. In fact, China continues its assertive trajectory “by conducting military drills, exploring for hydrocarbons in contested waters, and establishing new facilities in the Spratlys. It has also increased the presence of its naval ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, in the vicinity of Taiwan. Moreover, concurrently, China’s Haiyang Dizhi 8 has been trespassing both Vietnam’s and Malaysia’s territorial waters. Not a coincidence either, given Malaysia’s recent unexpected coup-style power transition and new PM Muhyiddin Yassin since March is still far from stabilizing the cabinet.

With the disastrous effects of the pandemic, looming economic repercussions, and a deteriorating international image, Beijing may be in need for something it can cast as a “win” domestically.

But pronouncing new administrative districts in the South China Sea is different from the occasional maritime pressure campaign or military exercise. It has far more lasting consequences. It aims to formalize China’s control, with permanent effects. China has a long and complicated history with cartography and documents and clearly sees them as a fundamental way of asserting its jurisdictional claims. It is doubtful that any in the international community will recognize the new administrative district. But for Beijing, a lack of (or limited) objection is sufficient.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines have issued formal denouncements of the Nansha and Xisha administrative districts. As challenging as it may be for regional governments who are fighting to save the lives of their people, they need to carve out bandwidth to monitor and have a say in the rapidly unfolding geostrategic events beyond the virus. Otherwise, the risk of facing another geostrategic setback after the pandemic only will grow.

Beijing also must understand the repercussions of these temptations. China is desperate to mitigate the reputation lost for its poor transparency record on COVID-19. Engaging in strategic opportunism and creating new facts on the ground in the South China Sea while few are looking is only going to further tarnish its credibility. Its actions further prove that China has no intention to respect international law. The 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling already denied the legality of its claims. Creating new administrative districts becomes a glaring testimony that China has no intention whatsoever to work toward a functional dispute management mechanism through ASEAN processes. It goes against the letter of the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct and the spirit of the Code of Conduct that is being negotiated.

Beijing is doing itself a great disservice for the short-sighted, perceived gain of demonstrating its absolute control. As a result, China will further isolate itself and undermine any remaining trust in the region, even from those expressing gratitude for Chinese medical equipment donations during the pandemic. Moreover, China may be pushing Vietnam over the edge in terms of pursuing legal action, which it has long refrained from for the sake of bilateral relations. If Beijing succeeds in provoking not one (previously the Philippines) but two of its neighbors to formally take legal action against it, this would say much about its regional leadership ability, let alone global ambitions.

Pandemics present opportunities for destabilization, which is why the United Nations has called for a ceasefire in all ongoing conflicts. It is worth considering extending this concept and calling for everyone in the international community to refrain from advancing any coercive agendas while COVID-19 continues to threaten humanity.

About Huong Le Thu

Dr. Huong Le Thu is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Defence and Strategy Program. She works on issues related to power asymmetry, foreign policy in post-socialist countries, and multilateralism in Asia.