COVID 19 and the Shifting Maritime Balance

COVID 19 and the Shifting Maritime Balance

Many analysts have underlined the threat of economic crisis resulting from Covid 19. This threat has already become real in the maritime defence sector, with many countries reallocating their budget to more pressing matters.  In South East Asia, the reduction of the navy budgets in key countries might threaten the balance of power by weakening their presence in a highly disputed area. Indeed, China has already adapted its policy in the South China Sea to benefit from the weakening of its opponents.   

The risk of  international tensions rising around maritime disputes is fuelled by the weakening of multiple players, as well as   maritime criminality taking advantage of a partial retreat of security forces is a reality. In South East Asia, a region holding many disputed maritime areas, this situation is aggravated as maritime security is particularly reliant on the strength of naval forces to ensure stability.

Covid, the recession and  stunted military development

The effects of the pandemic will continue to impact the regional and global maritime security calculus not only in the immediate future but for some years to come. Many economists have predicted that the pandemic will create a global economic crisis. This situation has already translated to defence budget reduction, with modernisation and new military acquisition being delayed and re-prioritised, with long term effect. Indonesia has announced about $590 million in cuts to its defence budget, directly impacting  the navy’s budget, a key component of national sovereignty and security on highly disputed waters. Multiple countries in Asia have taken  the same path, with Thailand cutting its defence budget by $555 million and  Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines also facing the same constraints.

In the long term, this situation might lead to a reduction in the deployment footprint impacting diplomatic and military regional cooperation. 

Multinational and bilateral exercises which enhance cooperative engagement may have to be reduced,  impacting response capabilities against threats to national interests or regional order. The Philippines has already cancelled its Balikatan 2020 exercise with the United States and Australia. The US-hosted Rim of the Pacific exercise has been shortened to a two-week, entirely at-sea event—a stark contrast to its five-week 2018 iteration.

The impact of this virus is, therefore, going to affect the operational preparedness in many direct and indirect ways for which countries will have to reorient their response strategies for their other roles and missions. These depletions of forces are likely to decrease military capacity, and to weaken joint threat response capability due to a lack of maritime cooperation and joint exercises. 

A change of tactics amid a pandemic

With this reduction in numbers of naval vessels on the world’s seas, some countries might attempt to benefit from this situation by force. The South China Sea area, one of the most important trades routes in the world and subject to conflicting claims by China, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, has been the theater of renewed tensions as China gained ground throughout the pandemic.

An escalation in the conflict over territory in the South China Sea could have global consequences, given that more than $5 trillion (4.25 trillion euros) in traded goods and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide passes through its waters each year, as well as much of the energy imports of surrounding nations. 

The control of the region by China could potentially threaten shipments to other countries, and deny access to foreign military forces, namely the US, which has sought to maintain the UNCLOS rights surrounding the water.

China’s Navy, according to Indian Commodore Anil Jian Singh, has already started to take advantage of the general weakening of the fleets present in South China Sea:

“A few days ago, it sank a Vietnamese fishing boat and has in the last few days started adopting an aggressive posture against Taiwan. (…) It may be recalled that it was in the Taiwan Straits in 1995-96 that the US aircraft carrier presence had effectively blunted China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan. (…) However, it now has the confidence to adopt an aggressive posture in the Western Pacific. With the Roosevelt tied up alongside Guam and battling the coronavirus, the Chinese may adopt an even bolder stance.”

Taking advantage of the weakening of other regional actors

The People Liberation Army has indeed increased its military activities in the region, enforcing its presence in disputed areas. Since March, the PLA has rammed into a Taiwanese coastguards vessel, sent an exploration vessel into the Malaysian exclusive economic zone, established new districts in the South China Sea and officially named South China Sea features, as well as threatening to “expel” a U.S. vessel conducting routine freedom of navigation operations. Moreover, in April, at the peak of the international crisis a Chinese government research ship was sent to conduct a seabed survey of Malaysia’s continental shelf, escalating a standoff over oil and gas exploration involving Malaysia and Vietnam started in December. Coupled with more frequent naval presence in the area, it appears that China is exploiting the weak positions of countries heavily hit by the pandemic to assert its claim in disputed areas.

This modus operandi is not new and comes in continuity of what some authors called a “grey area” tactics, meaning operations that materially advance Beijing’s interests without provoking conflict to gain ground with minimum risk. However, the symbolic dimension of the actions and their greater intensity, as well as the outcry by neighbours seems to outline an evolution of Beijing’s strategy in the region. Another development is China’s launching of a new project called “Blue Sea 2020”, on which few details have emerged. According to Chinese media, the campaign is designed around marine environment protection, lasting from April 30 to November 30, 2020. However, law enforcements under the supervision of the project will be tasked to target “violations” of Chinese laws in oil exploration, marine coastal construction, and sand and sea mining activities. Considering the conflicting property claims in the ressources rich region, it can be surmised that the project is targeting opposing claimants to conduct “law enforcement” on conflicted areas.

Reactions from opponents in South China Sea

China’s increasingly assertive behaviour has led Vietnam to strengthen its relations with the West, joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to participate in talks on Covid 19 and its economic and security impact in March, followed by the coming of the aforementioned visit by the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt in April. The dialogue with Vietnamese officials has continued since then, and US Foreign Secretary Pompeo made a joint declaration with the Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi saying he looked forward to further improvement in relations between the two countries at the end of his five-nation Asia visit on October 30th. This situation brings forward the transformation of alliances in the region, as countries seek new alliances to counterweight the sudden spike of aggression from China. Just as well, the reinforcement of a triangular alliance between India, France and China planning joint maritime operation in the Pacific is a sign of the transforming situation in South East Asia. Such displays of force in such a time might bring forward renewed tensions as China does not see with a good eye the reinforcement of forces it perceives as foreign. 


In the long term, many analysts point to the “afterworld” post Covid-19. Economically stressed countries may become vulnerable to external pressures, or seek new alliances to counterweight China. Even if only few details have escaped about the politics behind China’s change of tactics and its accentuation of military pressure on the region amid the pandemic, the reaction of its neighbours confronted to this situation ensure a quick reconfiguration of the situation as Malaysia and Vietnam have made public their will to keep steady against China. 

In the meantime, maritime criminality and international tensions might profit from the weakening of local and smaller power, unable to cope with an economic crisis, and larger power unable to maintain their projection force with a logistic chain burdened with a pandemic. The decline in spending and the reduction in military cooperation however marks a real setback in the stabilisation of a vital region for international circulation and traffic.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Theo Locherer

Théo Locherer has received a master’s degree in international Relations from the University of Edinburgh. He worked previously as an international development coordinator in Senegal for the Mbour regional Parliament. Before writing at GRI, he was a volunteer risk analyst for Peace Brigade International in France. His focus is on maritime security, more specifically in West Africa and South East Asia.