China is using coronavirus pandemic as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, Commander of US force in Japan said on Friday. He also said this is being practiced to intimidate and corner the concerned countries that claim the waters.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters news agency in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

Earlier, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi had also expressed concern over recent activities in the South China Sea, noting that they may potentially escalate tensions at a time when global collective effort is vital in fighting COVID-19.