Global efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic risk being undermined by the deepening stand-off between the US and China over claims that the latter is trying to extend its influence over the South China Sea, one of the world’s key commercial waterways.
Tensions are already running high over the causes of the pandemic, with Washington accusing Beijing of not being transparent about the origins and the extent of the outbreak in China, and the Chinese authorities suggesting the virus may have originated from an American military delegation that visited Wuhan, where the virus first appeared towards the end of last year.
The latest dispute centres on China's decision to deploy its newly constructed Liaoning aircraft carrier, together with its five accompanying warships, to the region, prompting allegations that Beijing is deliberately attempting to intimidate neighbouring countries in the region.
While Beijing has a long-standing claim to sovereignty over the waterway, this is disputed by other countries in the region such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, all of which have competing claims of their own.
China’s interest stems from the strategic significance of one of the globe’s busiest waterways, with roughly one-third of the world’s shipping passing through it, carrying trade worth about $3 trillion. In addition, the waters contain lucrative fisheries, while huge oil and gas reserves are believed to lie beneath its seabed.
The deployment of the Liaoning and other Chinese warships to the area, which began at the start of April, has resulted in a number of incidents involving Chinese vessels.
The Vietnamese government has claimed that one of its fishing boats was rammed by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel near the Paracel Islands. Vietnam and China have for years been embroiled in a dispute over the potentially energy-rich stretch of water, called the East Sea by Vietnam.
Chinese coast guard officials said the Vietnamese boat had illegally entered the area to fish and refused to leave and, after making some dangerous manoeuvres, it collided with a Chinese patrol vessel and sank. All the fishermen were picked up alive by the Chinese vessel and were transferred to two other Vietnamese fishing vessels operating nearby.
The incident prompted a furious response from Vietnam. “The Chinese vessel committed an act that violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa [the Vietnamese name for the Paracel Islands] archipelago and threatened the lives and damaged the property and legitimate interests of Vietnamese fishermen,” the foreign ministry said.
In other incidents, Chinese vessels have been accused of harassing Indonesian fishing boats, as well as tailing Malaysian oil-exploration vessels.
A diplomatic dispute has also arisen with other countries in the region such as the Philippines after China last week sought to further advance its territorial claims by announcing that the Paracel and the nearby Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank and their surrounding waters would be administered under two new Chinese districts.
Washington has blamed Beijing for the recent escalation of tensions in the region, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telling a meeting of Asean foreign ministers that China is seeking to take advantage of the pandemic to consolidate its hold over the region. “Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction [over Covid-19],” he said.
Washington has now significantly increased tensions by ordering a US Navy guided-missile destroyer to sail through waters near the Paracel Islands this week, directly challenging China's claim to the area. In a statement, the American navy said USS Barry had undertaken a so-called "freedom of navigation operation".
In a statement on the People's Liberation Army website, the Chinese military said it had mobilised sea and air assets to track and warn the American vessel away from "Chinese territorial waters” and accused the US of "provocative acts" that "seriously violated international law and China's sovereignty and security interests".
Apart from raising the risk of a deeper confrontation, this dramatic escalation in military activity does not bode well for the global effort to tackle the pandemic, in which China has a crucial role to play.
As the country that was first affected by Covid-19, China is in a unique position to provide crucial information that might help ultimately to find both a treatment and a vaccine to deal with the virus. Additionally, the world relies heavily on Chinese manufacturers to provide crucial protective clothing for medical staff and health workers, without which the task of containing the outbreak would be made immeasurably more difficult.
However, China's important role is in danger of being overlooked by the US, with the Trump administration's priority being to look for a scapegoat rather than concentrating all its efforts on finding a solution. To this end, Washington has intensified its attacks on Beijing, accusing it of mounting a worldwide disinformation campaign and hacking important global bodies such as the World Health Organisation, accusations that China has strenuously denied.
Washington’s diplomatic offensive has – so far, at least – not prevented Beijing from continuing with its efforts to support the global battle against Covid-19. But that could change if the latest eruption of tensions in the South China Sea lead to a more dangerous confrontation between the world’s leading superpowers.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor