New Delhi/Beijing, April 24 : Amidst the global coronavirus pandemic which originated in China's Wuhan city last December, the Asian giant has been aggressively trying to lay its claim over the disputed South and East China Sea, triggering a major pushback from the big powers and ASEAN countries.
Last Sunday, claiming its sovereignty over South China Sea (SCS), Chinese authorities released names, longitudes and latitudes for 25 islands and reefs as well as 55 undersea geographic entities, standardizing the disputed region.
Part of the Pacific Ocean, SCS encompasses an area from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the Strait of Taiwan.
It provides sea food security to Southeast Asia and also serves as a major shipping route with one-third of the world's shipping dependent on it.
Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia have disputed China's sovereignty over the SCS and its islands.
However, China has been increasing its military and naval presence by constructing artificial islands and carrying out other exercises.
The latest standardization of names of disputed islands came a day after the Beijing announced the establishment of two new districts in the city of Sansha in Hainan province to administer islands and reef waters in the disputed SCS.
While the local governments of one of the new districts is to control the islands and reefs of the Paracel Islands, the other is to administer the Spratly Islands.
The local government for the Spratly Islands is on the Fiery Cross Reef, which China has occupied.
Infuriated by China's aggression in the SCS while the world is combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the US, Japan, Europe, Australia, Germany along with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries were now pushing back.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi lodged a protest on Tuesday against the Xi Jinping government sending its ships into the Japanese territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Chinese ships have intruded in the waters near the Japanese-controlled islets seven times this year, most recently on April 17 when four coast guard vessels sailed through the area for about 90 minutes.
China calls the islets Diaoyu and claims them as its own.
A US warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait for the second time in a month after a Chinese aircraft carrier passed near the island.
Two weeks ago, the USS Barry also sailed through the strait, on the same day that Chinese fighter jets drilled in waters close to Taiwan, the democratically-ruled island.
At a video conference related to a public health initiative with ASEAN leaders on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a stern message warned China against "bullying" activities in SCS that distract from current efforts to deal with the pandemic.
He also revealed that as per a scientific report, Beijing's upstream dam operations have unilaterally altered flows of the Mekong, causing droughts in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia which can deprive 60 million people who depend on the river for food, energy, and transportation.
"Even as we fight the outbreak, we must remember that the long-term threats to our shared security have not disappeared.
In fact, they've become more prominent," Pompeo said.
Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction, from China's new unilateral announcement of administrative districts over disputed islands and maritime areas in the SCS, its sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel earlier this month, and its "research stations" on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, he said.
China continues to deploy maritime militia around the Spratly Islands and most recently, it has dispatched a flotilla that included an energy survey vessel for the sole purpose of intimidating other claimants from engaging in offshore hydrocarbon development, Pompeo pointed out.
The Communist Party of China (CPC), he said, is exploiting the world's focus on the COVID-19 crisis by continuing its provocative behaviour.
"The CPC is exerting military pressure and coercing its neighbors in the SCS, even going so far as to sink a Vietnamese fishing vessel.
The US strongly opposes China's bullying," he said urging American allies to protest against such predatory behaviour.
Pompeo asked China to close wet markets and urged ASEAN countries to do the same at the online conference.
Meanwhile, some ASEAN nations were also pushing back against Chinaas belligerence amidst the coronavirus outbreak.
The Philippines has lodged two diplomatic protests against China over violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty over the islands whose names China standardized.
The country expressed its displeasure to the Chinese Embassy in Manila about China's harassment of sailors of a Philippine Navy ship and its unilateral establishment of two districts that cover Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea.