While the rest of the world deals with coronavirus pandemic it started, China is moving aggressively in the hotly contested South China Sea, according to reports.
China is taking advantage of the power vacuum in the area by deploying large-scale military assets to the South China Sea and conducting military drills, Asia Times reported. This comes amid mounting speculation in the media that COVID-19 may have come from a government lab in Wuhan.
China is “officially celebrating strides made in exploiting disputed energy resources in the fossil fuel-rich sea,” according to the Hong Kong-based news outlet.
While some see China’s nationalistic messaging as a bid to rally its people during difficult Covid-19 times, others view the increasingly aggressive naval maneuvers as a bid to exploit America’s weakened condition to secure new advantage in the hot spot theater.
Rival Southeast Asian claimants are also in a compromised strategic position as they contend with worsening Covid-19 outbreaks.
The Philippines and Malaysia, both at territorial loggerheads with China in the sea, have both recently placed their administrative and commercial capitals under weeks-long, military-enforced lockdowns.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and top security officials including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana are in self-imposed quarantines, with Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief General Felimon Santos Jr recently testing positive for Covid-19.
The People’s Republic has a history of making “sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas,” antagonizing competing claimants Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
While China makes its moves in the disputed territory, United States, the region’s principal security guarantor, has been preoccupied with the world’s biggest reported outbreak of the China flu (over 235,000 cases to date and growing).
The Trump administration last week invoked the Defense Production Act, allowing federal government, including the U.S. military, to be more directly involved in the distribution of much-needed items like ventilators and face masks.
Back in February, scientists from the South China University of Technology released a research paper on the origins of COVID-19, leading to speculation that the deadly virus was created in a Wuhan city lab.
The study confirmed that the virus came from a type of bat that doesn’t live within 900 kilometers of Wuhan and found no evidence that it was being sold at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
“These scientists interviewed almost 60 people—59 of them—who frequented the Wuhan wet market. They confirm there were no horseshoe bats for sale there—period,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson noted on his show this week. The scientists said they discovered two labs in the immediate vicinity of the outbreak that were conducting research on bat coronavirus, including the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the national center for China’s bat virus research.
The paper, by researchers Botao Xial and Lei Xiao and titled “The possible origins of 2019-nCoV coronavirus,” was quickly retracted.
Earlier this week, Bill Gertz of The Washington Times highlighted the work of Tian Junhua, a scientist in Wuhan who is touted as a leader in bat virus research.
A State Department official said the reports about Mr. Tian and his role in working with bat viruses are concerning.
“He lives and works at Wuhan’s CDC, a few hundred yards away from the Huanan wet market,” the official said. “He is among the small team in Wuhan that has contributed to China’s obsession in recent years with virus hunting and research.”
Some U.S. and international scientists have dismissed reports linking the new virus to one of China’s research labs. They insist the virus jumped naturally to humans and then began spreading from person to person.
But others say a growing body of evidence indicates the virus may have been under study in a Chinese laboratory and escaped, either through an infection of a worker or through an infected lab animal.
“This is one of the worst cover-ups in human history, and now the world is facing a global pandemic,” said Rep. Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas), a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.