Not even a deadly pandemic keeps the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) from continuing its expansionist military plans. Or perhaps it is because of the pandemic, that it is increasing its military activity.
Regardless of motive, as China reportedly recovers from its severe Wuhan Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, it is currently deploying maritime militia vessels to disputed islands and reefs throughout the South China Sea.
According to vessel-tracking data and satellite imagery reviewed by Radio Free Asia (RFA):
A fleet of Chinese ships has been moving this month through the Union Banks, a collection of small land features disputed between China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan [in the Spratly Islands chain]…These ships were identified as part of China’s infamous maritime militia by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in January 2019.
A key component of China’s grey zone and hybrid warfare operations, the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) includes large numbers of “military” vessels disguised to look like civilian fishing trawlers, explains The National Interest.
These ships “fly the flag” for Beijing “under the radar” in disputed waters without a provocative, overt display of military force. Currently, dozens of these vessels have been identified at various locations in the disputed South China Sea.
RFA notes that “satellite imagery shows far more ships in the area than the five broadcasting an Automatic Identification System (AIS), signal.” While all ships are required to have AIS transponders, Chinese maritime militia ships often turn their transponders off “to mask their activity.”
Zack Cooper, at the American Enterprise Institute, said in RFA that, “Beijing has stepped up military activity around Taiwan and now appears to be doing some of the same around Union Banks. Whether this is simply a continuation of previous activity or an intentional effort to use this distraction to put pressure on other claimants is unclear.”
Even as the US and its allies confront the serious COVID-19 pandemic, this is not the time to take the eye – or pressure – off China.
Not only was China the source of this pandemic, it is now taking advantage of this crisis to expand its influence, at the expense of its neighbors.
These are Chinese gray zone operations at their best.
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.