Is China Bullying Its Neighbors Over Some Rocks in South China Sea?

Signs of escalating tension are shoring up in the South China Sea as Hanoi and Beijing go head to head over a “trawler attack.” Vietnam accused a Chinese vessel of chasing and firing on a Vietnamese fishing vessel near Paracel Islands on March 20, lodging a formal complaint with the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi and demanding punishment of those responsible of this “very serious” incident. China responded by stating that the unspecified actions by the Chinese vessel were “legitimate and reasonable” against illegal fishing activity by Vietnamese fishermen. 

This incident and its diplomatic handling bear more significance than its seemingly trivial cover, since any small event can flare up the decades-long brawl over contested islands in South China Sea. Both China and Vietnam claim the Paracel islands and the Spratly islands in South China Sea, along with the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei that also claim and/or occupy some parts of the disputed territory. This instance of Beijing-Hanoi back-and-forth, which might either escalate further or subside, we are yet to see, is not an isolated incident. We have seen more small-scale incidents around the disputed islands over the last few years, especially between China and Japan over Senkaku/Diaoyu Island.    

There have been many analyses regarding why China and other countries are so protective of these islands, which in fact are no more than small rocks that are either too small to be inhabited by people or submerged under water half of the time. Some say it’s about gas or oil underneath the islands, fishing rights, or securing Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) for overseas trades. Others say it’s about growing nationalistic sentiments in the region, China trying to be the regional hegemon, or China reacting to Obama’s “pivot to Asia.” While no conclusion can be made in this short article, the answer is probably some combination of all these factors.  

What we can conclude for sure, though, is that these acts of muscle-flexing in the South China Sea fundamentally clash with China’s vital interests of maintaining stable and productive relations with its neighbors. After all, Beijing’s first and foremost goal lies in keeping its people happy and therefore democratic-revolution-free by sustaining its unprecedented economic growth. And Beijing can do that only if it continues its flourishing trade relations within the Southeast Asian region and secure the sea routes through which most of its overseas trades are done. Indeed, much of Beijing’s diplomatic capital has been invested on this mission.

Last Thursday, after a phone conversation with Vietnamese Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Xi Jinping stated that China will “work with Vietnam to enhance bilateral exchanges and cooperation in various fields.” Trong responded by emphasizing the great importance of the “traditional friendship with China” and vowing to “push forward ties as to contribute to peace and development in the region and the world at large.” Underlying these high-level schmoozing are, however, decades-long territorial disputes that can crumble these efforts for peace and development by just one or two military altercations in the sea.

To be fair, China was only exercising its legitimate rights, according to its Foreign Ministry, and other countries would have probably done the same if a foreign vessel approached one of the islands they occupy. In fact, generally speaking, China has shown much restraint in using violence. However, China cannot help looking like a bully in most of its conflict situations with its neighbors, especially with its naval power growing at the speed and magnitude that has been making other Asian countries very nervous. It’s about time that China reevaluates its long-term and short-term priorities, understand the discrepancy between its actions and how they appear to others, and take tangible measures that are dedicated to maintain peace and stability in the region.