The South China Sea remains a strategically important route for access to Southeast Asia. While China claims that it enjoys sovereign rights over much of the relevant waters, the tensions continue to grow as the White House accuses Beijing of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic in order to strengthen its presence in the region.

Following the US, now Australia has raised concerns over the presence of Chinese military vessels in the disputed South China Sea.

Referring to the increasing presence of Chinese vessels in the area, the Indian website The Economic Times quoted Australia's High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell as calling it: “actions to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities and the dangerous and coercive use of coast guard vessels and so called maritime militias”. 

Tensions in the region have grown as Washington also intensified its military activities in 2020 under the pretext of upholding freedom of navigation in the region. The South China Sea remains disputed, as China claims ownership over significant patches of the area, which is countered by four other nations. Beijing has also built military installations in the region, insisting that they are purely of a defensive nature.

Its vessels and aircraft will continue their operations in the region and support other nations doing the same, The Economic Times quoted O’Farrell as saying.

The White House has also accused Chinese authorities of exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to strengthen their regional hold. "The People's Republic of China is attempting to use the regional focus on COVID[-19] to assertively advance its own interests", US Navy Captain Michael Kafka, a spokesperson for the American military's Indo-Pacific Command, told CNN.

The Australian high commissioner to India, who urged “all parties to take meaningful steps to ease tensions and build trust, including through dialogue”, has said that all territorial disputes need to be settled in accordance with international law and acts of coercion could lead to escalation.