Coronavirus and the South China Sea

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      The Virus and the Military

      The coronavirus pandemic has upended much of daily life around the world, but that doesn’t mean geopolitics and regional rivalries have stopped. In fact, China may be using the crisis to boost its position in the hotly contested South China Sea. Lisa Fletcher has that story.

      Lisa Fletcher: When it pulled into port in Guam in the Western Pacific, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was carrying more than just the cases of coronavirus that would propel the ship into the headlines when its captain sounded the alarm. Its unscheduled stop also sidelined a big part of America’s ongoing effort to show military strength in a part of the world that China would like to dominate. Nowhere more so than the South China Sea - a crucial seaway surrounded by competing nations with claims over the area and it’s resources. To understand what’s going on while the world is focused on the virus, we reached retired Navy captain Carl Schuster, the former director of operations at the military’s joint intelligence center for the Pacific.

      Lisa Fletcher: When it comes to the Western Pacific, why is there so much attention on the South China Sea. Why is that such a flashpoint?

      Carl Schuster: It's become a flashpoint in the last 30 years mainly because China has begun to assert its interests. They claim the entire South China Sea under what they call the nine-dash line. China expanded that about five years ago to include Indonesia's Natuna Islands. The key escalation occurred in the 1970s, there was a discovery of oil reserves in the Spratly Islands archipelago, and suddenly everyone wanted to initiate their claims.

      Lisa: For more than a decade, China has been building up its naval forces and on some remote, previously empty islands, it has built military bases, ignoring other nations’ claims of sovereignty. In March, Beijing conducted large-scale naval exercises in the South China Sea and in mid-April, a Chinese carrier battle group sailed close to Japan and Taiwan.

      Schuster: They're sending a signal to the neighbors. "We're the home team. The Americans aren't there for you now. Does that tell you how reliable they might be in the future? Whereas we are here. We've always been here and we always will be." There's a geopolitical leverage perspective. There is a geopolitical message.

      Lisa: That statement makes me think that people who are strategists for the U.S. and decision-makers can't rely on old ways of thinking or old impressions about the way the Chinese operate.

      Schuster: We need to change the way we approach. We're no longer the only game in town, so, ‘we're angry, we'll cut off your money,’ no longer works, because China will step in. We've got to rethink how we do it as a whole government process because that's the way the Chinese think. We've got to develop an integrated, full-spectrum approach to covering the Chinese, integrating soft power, information warfare, cyber power.

      Lisa: A sign of just how important the area is to the U.S. Navy, just before the coronavirus outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier sailed as part of a large U.S. fleet through the South China Sea. For Full Measure, I'm Lisa Fletcher.

      Since the first case of coronavirus was reported on the carrier Roosevelt, other navy ships including carriers have reported outbreaks but the Pentagon says readiness has not been affected.