Members of the Chinese Coast Guard stand in formation on board their vessel after it anchored at Manila port on January 14, 2020. Photo: AFP / Stringer

Amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, China has begun flexing its muscles in a clear show of force to regional rivals.

Over the weekend, Beijing announced that it will increase its defense spending by 7.1% to US$229 billion, up from 6.8% last year. This brings official Chinese defense spending to $229 billion, a whopping figure dwarfing all other regional rivals’ defense budgets combined and second only to the United States globally.

China’s actual defense spending is likely significantly higher, with some measurements putting it as high as $600 billion in recent years.

Beijing has also taken a more assertive stance in adjacent waters, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi warning Southeast Asian states against “external interference” in the long-running negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC).

Previously, China indicated that it would only sign up to the proposed deal if it gives the Asian powerhouse de facto veto power over the prerogative of regional states to conduct joint military exercises and joint energy exploration deals with external powers – a hegemonic stance that prompted a heavy rebuke from Washington.

But just as China’s top diplomat expressed optimism over the direction of COC negotiations, Beijing announced almost two weeks-long (March 4 to 15) military drills in the Gulf of Tonkin, which is located just 60 nautical miles (110 kilometers) from Vietnam’s ancient capital of Hue.

Last Friday, China’s Hainan Maritime Safety Administration issued a navigation warning, unilaterally banning vessels from entering an area that overlaps with Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Hanoi immediately protested the unilateral move, calling on China to “respect Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf, stop and not to repeat any act that complicates the situation.”

Meanwhile, there are growing indications that China has stepped up its perceived by many as illegal deep-sea exploration activities across the South China Sea and well into the EEZ of neighboring states, in a clear bid to lay claim to and dominate precious resources in the area.

Russia’s premeditated invasion of Ukraine has raised deep concerns across the Indo-Pacific over potential provocations by China, Moscow’s top Asian ally.

Taiwan, which has been repeatedly threatened with a potential military invasion by top Chinese leaders, has been on high-alert mode. In its latest campaign of intimidation, Chinese fighter jets have repeatedly challenged Taiwan’s airspace, with a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-11 fighter most recently piercing into the democratically-governed island’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

In response, several high-level delegations from the US have visited Taiwan in a clear show of bipartisan support amid the heightened tensions. Just days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US Navy deployed the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ralph Johnson through the Taiwan Straits.

“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the United States’ commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Seventh Fleet spokesperson Nicholas Lingo said in a statement, adding “The United States military flies, sails and operates anywhere international law allows.”

Intent on constraining China’s naval ambitions in adjacent waters, the Biden administration has stepped up US naval deployments across the region’s contested maritime areas. Last year, US carrier strike groups entered the South China Sea 10 times, significantly more than 2020 (six times) and 2019 (five times).

The US conducted a similar maneuver in late January when the USS Dewey (DDG-105), also an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, sailed through the Taiwan Strait.

Last November, the Pentagon released a Congress-mandated report that warned that China has the biggest maritime force on the globe with 355 warships. The PLA Navy expected to expand its armada to as many as 420 ships within the next four years and 460 by 2030, according to the report. 

In response to China’s “growing ambitions” in the high seas, the Pentagon’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michael Gilday, said that the US Navy needs to expand its own fleet to more than 500 ships in the coming years in order to keep up with the Pentagon’s commitment based on a forthcoming National Defense Strategy under the Biden administration.

“We need 12 carriers. We need a strong amphibious force to include nine big-deck amphibs and another 19 or 20 [landing platform docks] to support them. Perhaps 30 or more smaller amphibious ships to support Maritime Littoral Regiments… to 60 destroyers and probably 50 frigates, 70 attack submarines and a dozen ballistic missile submarines to about 100 support ships and probably looking into the future about 150 unmanned,” said the US admiral.

The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry conducts operations in the South China Sea in 2020. Photo: AFP / Samuel Hardgrove / US Navy

But while the US has stepped up its defense commitment to Taiwan, other regional states are vulnerable to China’s assertiveness. Vietnam, which has no defense alliance with any major power, is clearly troubled by the ongoing situation.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Vietnamese constitution mandates a “the three no’s” foreign policy, namely “no military alliances, no aligning with one country against another, and no foreign military bases on Vietnamese soil.”

For the past decade, however, the Southeast Asian country has largely relied on arms imports from Russia in order to beef up its defensive capabilities, while Russian energy companies have been helping Hanoi to develop offshore oil and gas resources in the South China Sea.

But with Russia now becoming the world’s most sanctioned nation, with the West and key Asian economies imposing a new wave of ever-more punishing restrictions on trade and investment deals with Moscow, Vietnam may struggle to maintain robust bilateral ties with its traditional partner.

Vietnam is already struggling to maintain exports to Russia, while facing potential US sanctions over future military hardware purchases from the Eurasian power.

China’s imposition of a sweeping ban on entry of foreign vessels across portions of Vietnam’s EEZ amid 12-day wargames by the PLA this month has underscored Hanoi’s trepidation.

“Part of the above-mentioned maritime area belongs to Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf as determined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said on Monday.

“We ask China to respect Vietnam’s sovereignty and not take actions to complicate the situation, thereby contributing to maintaining peace, security and stability in the East Sea area,” she added, reflecting Vietnam’s growing frustration over China’s impunity in adjacent waters.

Over the past two years, China has rapidly expanded its military and para-military presence across the South China Sea. Record numbers of Chinese militia vessels have been harassing rival states, prompting a naval showdown with the Philippines over the Whitsun Reef in the Spratlys. Chinese coast guard vessels have also been harassing Malaysia energy exploration activities off the coast of Sarawak.

Just as worrying is China’s expanding deep-sea exploration across the EEZ of rival claimant states.

China's Maritime Militia at sea. Photo: Reuters
China’s Maritime Militia at sea. Photo: Agencies

“China also conducts a significant number of surveys in the South China Sea that don’t make headlines. Automatic identification system (AIS) data on Chinese surveys from 2020 and 2021 demonstrates that China’s survey activities span the entire South China Sea and regularly occur in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of its Southeast Asian neighbors,” the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said in a recent report.

“Such surveys for marine scientific research or oil and gas exploration without permission are illegal under international law; those for purely military research are legal but run counter to China’s stated opposition to foreign military surveys within the EEZ,” the report added, underscoring how China’s exploration and surveillance fleet is now also the largest and most active in the Indo-Pacific.

Confident of its expanding footprint in adjacent waters and exploiting new uncertainties unleashed by the ongoing crisis in Europe, China has indicated its openness to expedite the long-stalled COC negotiations.

“China is always confident in the prospect of reaching the COC, because advancing the COC consultation is in the common interests of China and the ASEAN countries, and is also a key move to ensure that the South China Sea becomes a sea of peace and cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a press conference on Monday.

“We have seen that some non-regional countries are not happy to see the norm being reached and do not want the South China Sea to be calm, because this will make them lose the excuse to meddle in the South China Sea for personal gain,” he added, laying blame on external powers, namely the US, for the deadlock in COC negotiations.

Wang called on ASEAN countries to “see this clearly and jointly resist external interference and sabotage,” echoing Russian-style West-blaming to justify its own assertiveness in the region.

“We will continue to take ASEAN as a priority of China’s diplomacy, firmly safeguard the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation structure, safeguard Southeast Asia’s position as a nuclear-free zone… support the use of ASEAN to mediate regional hot spot issues and oppose the creation of cliques and divisions within the region,” Wang said, while warning regional states against seeking assistance from and alliance with external powers such as the US.