From shining lasers at Philippine ships in February to firing water cannons at them over the weekend, China keeps testing the limits of aggression—dialing up the notch but carefully keeping short of an outright act of war—in disputed waters like the South China Sea.
Beijing’s sweeping claims to virtually all of the South China Sea were invalidated by a U.N.-backed tribunal at The Hague in 2016, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese ships from firing lasers and water cannons or performing close-in maneuvers and fleet blockades to assert territorial dominance.
While such actions have prompted strong condemnation from the likes of the Philippines and other countries on the receiving end—as well as from China’s rivals like the U.S. and Japan—China has displayed no remorse, often defending the behavior as legal and necessary to defend its interests.
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Experts say that China appears to be baiting a military response from opposing claimants in the South China Sea (or their allies) that would trigger an even more dangerous but legally justifiable use of force on its part, but so far none of the nations involved have militarily engaged with China over the issue. The Philippines has repeatedly pursued diplomatic pathways to file its grievances, including summoning the Chinese ambassador over the incident on Monday. Short of military escalation, however, experts say China appears to be discerning more and more of what it can get away with—and isn’t likely to stop antagonizing its neighbors.
“The South China Sea issue is not just a clear cut sovereignty issue or great power rivalry issue, but underpinning it is also an issue of who holds the moral high ground,” says Collin Koh, a regional security analyst from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “I think China is assiduously trying to avoid becoming the first one to fire a shot because it's going to undermine its case on many fronts.”
Though China’s shooting of the water cannon was dangerous, says Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., it would not be considered an “armed attack” that would trigger a mutual defense treaty between Washington and Manila. “Typically, an armed attack results in permanent destruction or disabling of an asset, with possible human casualties or loss of life.”
There are certain “red lines,” Koh tells TIME, that China would not cross, including using firearms or anything “bigger than that” like missiles. Doing so would allow Manila to launch a new legal challenge against Beijing—and if the 2016 Hague ruling is any indicator, such a challenge would almost certainly go against China. An unprompted armed attack would also galvanize the Philippines’ allies like the U.S. and other states in the region to respond in force.
But by doing everything short of an armed attack, says Koh, China can “chip away” at and “gradually erode” the Philippines’ and other parties’ “ability to respond in time and over time.” In particular, notes Koh, because the U.S. won’t respond in a “decisive manner,” China seems to hope that its bullying of the Philippines, a prominent U.S. ally, will serve to “undermine” the regional credibility of partnering with the U.S., as Manila is made to appear defenseless.
“The Philippines is unfortunately in a very tough spot, as are the other maritime counterclaimants like Vietnam and Malaysia,” says Grossman, “when going up against these assertive Chinese gray zone operations.”
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