Chinese naval vessels participate in a drill on the East China Sea
Chinese naval vessels participate in a drill on the East China Sea, China, August 1, 2016. Picture taken August 1, 2016. China Daily/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT.

A series of recent statements and moves from China shows it has become more antagonistic after the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) July 12 ruling that invalidated many of the rising superpower’s claims and actions in the South China Sea.

Chinese naval vessels participate in a drill on the East China Sea
Chinese naval vessels participate in a drill on the East China Sea, China, August 1, 2016. Picture taken August 1, 2016. China Daily/via REUTERS

One of these, as reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, on August 2, is Defense Minister Chang Wanquan’s call “for substantial preparation for a ‘people’s war at sea’ to safeguard sovereignty” during his inspection of China’s defense work in coastal Zhejiang province.

Chinese navy’s massive live-fire drill in the East China Sea on August 1, which was aimed “at honing the assault intensity, precision, stability and speed of troops” and practising for “an information technology-based war at sea” that “is sudden, cruel and short”, can be such “substantial preparation.”

China’s preparedness and even willingness for a stronger – possibly military – response aimed at the United States and its regional allies in the wake of the PCA’s verdict – is somehow revealed by some sources that have close ties with the communist-ruled country’s military and leadership.

One of these sources told Reuters that “the People’s Liberation Army is ready” and the country “should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979”, when China launched a military attack on its communist neighbor to teach the latter “a lesson.”

On Saturday, August 6, Xinhua also reported that Chinese Air Force had sent military aircraft, including H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighters, on “combat patrols” above the disputed Spratly Islands and the flashpoint Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

The communist-ruled country’s mouthpiece quoted China’s military spokesman Shen Jinke as saying “the flight is part of actual combat training to improve the air force’s response to security threats” and its Air Force will organize “regular South China Sea patrols.”

Another ominous move undertaken by China to enforce its maritime claims was its People’s Supreme Court’s new interpretation of maritime jurisdiction. According to this interpretation, which came into effect on August 2, those who “illegally enter Chinese waters” – including its exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelves – could face up to one year in jail.

Though it did not directly mention the South China Sea, China’s new interpretation is worrisome for at least two reasons.

First, some, if not many, of the waters that China consider as its own are disputed areas. The PCA last month ruled that China had no historic title over the waters and resources within its so-called ‘nine-dash line’, that none of the features claimed by China entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone and that China violated the fishing rights of the Philippines by preventing its citizens from fishing in the sea.

Second, earlier, Chinese coast guard vessels just chased away foreign fishermen or confiscated their boats or shortly retained them. They are now provided with a legal justification to be more aggressive in the disputed waters. China’s courts are also given power to prosecute people who enter those areas.

Ironically, while China said its judicial interpretation was made in accordance with both its law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which the Philippines had brought its case and based on which the PCA ruled, it vehemently rejected the arbitration and the ruling.

These latest moves evidently indicate that China has significantly stepped up its posture following the PCA’s ruling – rhetorically, legally and militarily.

Against regional commitments

In fact, those latest rhetoric and actions by China are opposed to what regional countries stand for.

At their annual ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) in Vientiane, Laos last month, ASEAN foreign ministers reaffirmed their “shared commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including UNCLOS.”

Their final statement, which is regarded by some as water-downed as it did not mention the arbitral tribunal’s landmark ruling, “emphasised the importance of non-militarization” and “reaffirmed the need to … exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions” that “could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

Equally, the Chairman’s Statement of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – a 27-member and ASEAN-led regional security dialogue which includes China, India, Japan, Russia, the US, the EU and Canada – in Laos on July 26 “reaffirmed the need to … exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation and pursue peaceful resolution of disputes by parties concerned in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS.”

Some of China’s latest aggressive moves were already opposed by Vietnam, one of the countries that have disputes with the former over the South China Sea.

For instance, in a sharp response to Chang Wanquan’s call of China’s military, police and public to prepare for a “people’s war at sea”, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh stated that peace and stability in the East Sea “is the interest and aspiration of all countries within and outside of the region. Disputes in the waters must be resolved peacefully on the basis of international law, and without use of or threat to use force.”

At a press briefing on August 4, Binh added that “officials of other countries need to speak and act in accordance with … their nations’ obligations, which are respecting international law, refraining from using or threatening to use force.”

Commenting on China’s new regulations that outline penalties for “illegal” fishing in “Chinese waters”, Binh said “the treatment of fishermen working in the East Sea must comply with international law and agreements reached between countries.”

Escalating regional tensions?

The joint communique of the 49th AMM also underlined that the ASEAN countries “remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea and several ministers at the 23rd ARF expressed the same concern.

Moreover, both the AMM and the ARF meetings in Laos last month “took note of the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamation and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

The latest belligerent postures by Beijing could further increase those concerns and “erode trust and confidence” of regional countries toward China. Their relations with the giant neighbor could deteriorate further by these developments.

In an article in the Financial Times on July 13, a day after the PCA’s ruling, Tom Mitchell referred two incidents told by diplomats to demonstrate why China’s approach to the South China Sea disputes eroded its relations with ASEAN members.

The first took place during the China-ASEAN meeting in Kunming, China nearly two months ago. At that special meeting, without any prior consultation, Chinese diplomats handed ASEAN foreign ministers a 10-point “consensus” on the South China Sea and asked them to sign it. This provoked an angry reaction, especially from the Philippine, Vietnamese and Malaysian officials.

Adding insult to injury, ASEAN ministers, some of whom (e.g. Vietnam’s Pham Binh Minh) are deputy prime ministers, were given an angry lecture by Liu Zhenmin, a vice-foreign minister responsible for boundary issues and maritime affairs.

The second is concerned with a remark by Yang Jiechi in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2010 when China’s then foreign minister, told his ASEAN counterparts that “China is a big country and you are small countries and that is a fact.”

According to Tom Mitchell, this infamous saying by Yang Jiechi was cited by many “as the trigger for US President Barack Obama’s military “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region.”

If Chinese diplomats explicitly – if not arrogantly – expressed such attitudes, it is not surprising that some Chinese military officials held the like of the “give them bloody nose” posture. Neither is shocking that China’s Global Times called Australia a “country with an inglorious history” and regarded it as “an ideal target for China to warn and strike” if Canberra “steps into the South China Sea waters.”

There is no doubt that many countries are involved in the South China Sea disputes and they have opposing views on the maritime disputes. Their involvements and views, to varying degrees, complicate and worsen the spats. However, it seems there is no country whose officials and state-controlled media have such a hawkish rhetoric and posture like China’s.

If this continues, tensions in the region will escalate, potentially resulting in military confrontations and conflicts. And any major armed conflict will badly affect all regional countries, including China.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK, in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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