BEIJING — A study says Southeast Asian countries are cutting defense spending as a result of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, potentially opening up room for China to further assert its claims in the region.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, a maritime security expert at the University of Indonesia, writes that slashing defense spending is seen as a relatively easy way to cut costs when countries are facing pressure on their budgets.

“Indonesia, for example, has announced it will slash its defense budget this year by nearly US$588 million. Thailand has likewise reduced its defense allocation by $555 million. Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines all face similar pressure,” Darmawan wrote in the online journal of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “Less defense spending will invariably mean less patrols at sea.”

China recently announced it will increase its defense spending by 6.6 percent in 2020, despite a major downturn in the country’s economic growth due to the pandemic. The increase is the lowest in years, but will still allow China to expand its ability to enforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea and grow its military presence in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. Another key priority is maintaining a credible threat against Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that China considers its own territory, to be brought under its control by military force if necessary.

China has maintained its presence in the South China Sea throughout the virus outbreak. Recent frictions include Chinese ships shadowing Malaysian mineral exploration operations and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese maritime security vessel.

However, China’s foreign minister dismissed claims that the country is exploiting the coronavirus outbreak to expand its regional footprint, labeling such accusations as “sheer nonsense.”

State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters at a news conference on Sunday that China is cooperating closely on anti-virus efforts with Southeast Asian countries, several of whom have overlapping territorial claims with China in the strategically vital waterway.

While China has long been stepping up its presence in the region, Wang said other countries — likely meaning the United States and its allies — have been creating instability with military flights and sea patrols.

“Their ill-intentioned and despicable moves are meant to sow discord between China and [Southeast Asian countries] and undermine the hard-won stability in the region,” Wang said.

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