The Dispute: On December 10 last year, China’s coast guard ship collided with a naval boat of the Philippines sailing on a resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines said China “harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous manoeuvres”, squarely blaming it for the unsavoury incident. It was neither an accident nor a minor incident. The Filipino ship was moving towards BRP Sierra Madre, a World War 2 wreckage ship of the Philippine Navy, to replenish a few handfuls of marines stationed there guarding its sovereign claims on Spratly Island. It’s a centuries-old dispute that China has over the island with four countries, including the Philippines.
The incident was not unexpected and was literally in the making, and what was concerning was the increasing aggressiveness of China. It’s the third such instance of collision since August last year. This time, the Chinese ship not only blocked the way but severely damaged the engine of one of the Philippine boats with a water cannon. It happened while China told Filipino ships not to venture near the island as it was ‘Chinese territory’. Such acts could only lead to the deterioration of mutual relations and, at worst, an armed conflict. In global interactions, no country behaves the way China does, and its actions in the last decade reflect that it doesn’t think twice before acting perilously in its neighbourhood.
The Chinese ship damaged the engine of the Philippine boat with a water cannon and told Filipino ships not to venture near the Spratly Islands as it was ‘Chinese territory’. Such acts could only lead to the deterioration of mutual relations and, at worst, an armed conflict. China’s actions in the last decade reflect that it doesn’t think twice before acting perilously in its neighbourhood
There are several examples of China’s outrageous conduct, be it Galwan in India, Spratly Island with the Philippines, Senkaku with Japan, or Paracel Islands with Vietnam. It didn’t even leave its close ally Pakistan when it asked it to hand over Aksai Chin. Naturally, Pakistan felt much safer to let go of its territory than to stand for its claim. China’s dealing with smaller nations has given it a false sense of bravado. However, what has been noticeable in the case of China is its acute fear of full-fledged violent combat. China specialises in expertly avoiding combat, which is exemplified by the fact that the last it got into a full-scale armed conflict was in 1979 with Vietnam resulting in claims of victory by both nations. Since then, it’s just been a poke-and-probe tactic.
Think of an instance where China stood for its concerns and conveyed it would go ‘all-out’ for that. Probably none exists, and the closest we have seen it blowing hot air was during Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022. But that too, expectedly, fizzled out when Pelosi landed in Taipei. Chinese media claimed ‘thunderous unprecedented live-fire drills’ around Taiwan straits, but that’s all. It sums up China’s ‘meritorious’ efforts in the modern battlefield. That was ‘one of the most opportune moments’ for China to display that it means real business. Millions of dollars worth of ammunition wasted by the Chinese armed forces in the sea couldn’t achieve what a single shell landing on the Taiwanese territory could have done!
There are several examples of China’s outrageous conduct, be it Galwan in India, the Spratly Islands with the Philippines, Senkaku with Japan, or the Paracel Islands with Vietnam. It didn’t even leave its close ally Pakistan when it asked it to hand over Aksai Chin. Naturally, Pakistan felt much safer to let go of its territory than to stand for its claim
There could be analysts who would want to appear sane in suggesting China didn’t wish for an outright war with Taiwan. The point is China has a doubly doubtful appetite for a war. There are multiple geostrategic options if a country is capable of exercising them. China couldn’t even announce the closer of Taiwanese airspace before Nancy Pelosi’s visit, which would have made its ‘Red Lines’ clear. Pelosi would have the option to ultimately travel by ship to Taiwan, leaving an honourable way out for the US while making a global statement. China’s confrontation with India at Galwan and quick rush for the negotiating table has similar poke-and-probe tactics on display. China can fool itself as many times as it wants to but the world is capable of seeing it through.
China appears to selectively carry the rebellious and disruptive vision of Mao as a guiding light, not realising that global realities are very different from the time Mao would have envisioned his thoughts. The global power matrix has vastly changed since 1976, it has new strong and smart players in the game; there isn’t any Cold War; the Russian Federation is reasserting itself; the concept of NATO is gaining popularity; India has emerged as one of the few combat-hardened nations and global economic powerhouse, the world looks much more prepared to absorb conventional wars as in Ukraine and Gaza. These changes may be uncomfortable for China but still, there are a few realities that remain the same; power is still valued, nations accord mutual respect in diplomacy irrespective of their size, and intervening in domestic matters of others still remains taboo.
The current dispute with the Philippines is one among many of China’s mushrooming territorial rows in the region. Hu Jintao, China’s President in 2012, voiced his desire to make China a powerful maritime nation. Xi, the President in the chair from 2013 onwards, took it to an entirely different level. Today China disputes everything with its eastern and southern neighbours in the East and South China Seas. The state of atrociousness is such that China claims the entire Exclusive Economic Zone of the whole of the ASEAN countries put together. Very few such absurd examples exist in the modern world. Unfortunately, President Xi doesn’t feel something amiss with the way he has led China in a state where it has absolved itself of being alive to difficulties its neighbours are bearing on.
Chinese military conduct has transitioned from poor to pathetic. But China should not carry any illusions about the sovereign conduct of nations. Countries, irrespective of their sizes, will go to any length to safeguard their national honour against a morally hollow and bullying adversary. Nothing will stop them from seeking international support, which they will get eventually
The current geopolitics is not what Xi would have ever thought. China has pushed a tiny country like the Philippines to stand up and respond militarily. The Philippines not only refused to back down on Chinese threats of sovereignty claims but, in a very dignified manner, countered Chinese provocations of them sending large vessels and creating barricades around the Philippines-managed island. The seriousness accorded by the Philippines assumes significance and calls for global acknowledgement. The Filipino supply vessel, which the Chinese coast guard deliberately blocked and collided with, had the Chief of Staff of the Philippines armed forces, General Romeo Brawner, on board. The footage of the incident also punctured Chinese claims of aggressive manoeuvre by Filipino ships. On the contrary, the Chinese coast guard ship aggressively blocked the approach, which resulted in the collision.
Chinese military conduct has only transitioned from poor to pathetic. China should carry no illusions about the sovereign conduct of nations. Countries, irrespective of their size, will go to any length to safeguard their national honour against a morally hollow and bullying adversary. Nothing will stop them from seeking international support, which they will get. If China believes its size will ‘impress’ smaller nations, it will not; if it thinks it has too many dollars, it will not be able to match up the global inflow; if it feels its military can handle a war, it will be redoubtable and probably this aspect China will not err. China should remain careful in its antics; a hollow trumpet can only be blown till the other’s patience doesn’t wear down completely!
-The writer, experienced in security and geopolitics, contributes to national publications. His articles can be accessed on the popular blog site newsanalytics.in, focusing on geostrategic affairs.