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Δευτέρα, 27 Μαΐου, 2024

China’s Reckless Aggression in the South China Sea Risks Regional War

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Once again, the world has borne witness to the belligerent tactics employed by China to bully its smaller neighbors and reinforce its illegal maritime claims in the South China Sea. The latest outrage involves Chinese coast guard vessels using water cannons to disrupt a Philippine resupply mission to its troops stationed on the grounded warship Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal. This brazen act of violence and harassment follows a pattern of escalating aggression by Beijing to forcibly project its dominance over the strategic waterway. Despite a landmark 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea, it has flagrantly disregarded the tribunal’s decision in its expansionist pursuit.

The incident saw Chinese vessels reportedly ram into Philippine boats, with water cannons being indiscriminately fired at a contracted wooden-hulled resupply ship belonging to the Philippine military. Four Filipino crew members sustained injuries when the high-pressure water streams shattered the bridge’s windows. Thankfully, the injuries were relatively minor, but this reckless Chinese behavior could easily have led to far graver consequences – the potential spark for an armed inter-state conflict that could rapidly engulf the region. As Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. warned in the leadup to a summit with the U.S. and Japan, it is precisely such miscalculations and unintended escalations arising from Beijing’s maritime brinkmanship that risk igniting a regional conflagration. One serious injury or loss of life from these unsafe maneuvers could have compelled the Philippines to forcefully defend its personnel and respond in kind, potentially triggering an action-reaction spiral.

And this was not a one-off incident. Just last month, the Philippines accused Chinese forces of using water cannons on two of its supply boats within its own territorial waters, in what it described as blatant “obstruction of legitimate Philippine operations.” These tactics are clearly premeditated and designed to continually test the boundaries through graduated intimidation. China deploys this gray zone coercion not just against the Philippines, but increasingly against other nations in the region as well. In declaring its rejection of the 2016 arbitration ruling as “null and void,” Beijing seeks to unilaterally enforce its claims and deter any opposition by constantly creating unprovoked enforcement scenarios backed by threats of escalation.

The Pentagon has raised repeated alarms over a dramatic spike in unsafe aerial intercepts of U.S. aircraft by the People’s Liberation Army over the South China Sea, risking midair collisions. Even Australia has been subjected to China’s hazardous practices, with an incident in 2022 where a fighter jet dangerously dispersed flares containing metal chaff into the engines of an Australian maritime patrol plane. The costs of such provocations have been laid bare in geopolitical blowback and reputational damage for Beijing. It has not only galvanized regional opposition and mistrust, but strained ties with partners like the Philippines that had sought a more balanced, diplomatic approach to the territorial disputes.

As President Marcos himself reflected, the “level of nuisance” from China has become “too much” – perhaps resignation that Manila’s pragmatic stance and efforts to uphold economic ties with Beijing may have been an exercise in futility. Beijing seems to have calculated that its continued bullying would incrementally erode Philippine sovereignty and resolve anyway. The hardening stance was on clear display during this week’s U.S.-led trilateral summit in Washington, aimed at confronting China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. President Marcos stated his nation’s unequivocal backing for the arbitral ruling, while Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida echoed “serious concerns” over Beijing’s maritime militia operations and militarization of artificial islands.

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In an unusually blunt joint statement, the three leaders called out China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” that “undermines the rules-based international order and respect for international law.” They outlined plans for joint military drills, increased defense cooperation, and maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific to counter Beijing’s destabilizing conduct. The tough language signals a recalibration by U.S. allies who are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to China’s widening maritime insurgency. Even more surprisingly, conservative estimates suggest Congress may be poised to approve $2.5 billion in fresh military aid for the Philippines to deter China.

While diplomacy must be the principal pathway to resolving these flashpoint disputes, the sheer scale of Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea may necessitate an asymmetric escalation by the U.S. and partners to raise the costs and compel a change in China’s risk calculus. The dilemma is that Beijing has proven stubbornly impervious to international law, global opinion, or reasoned negotiations when it comes to the South China Sea. It sees dominating this critical maritime highway and securing its adjacent resources as an existential imperative that justifies any means.

What’s clear is that continued inaction and platitudes will only embolden China’s coercive conduct. The world is watching the slow-motion bulldozing of a rules-based maritime order through Beijing’s gray zone stratagems. At a certain point, the international community must decide whether safeguarding core principles like freedom of navigation and respect for exclusive economic zones is worth taking concrete deterrent action. China’s aggression has already sparked dangerous militarization and made conflict more likely through its refusal to pursue any negotiated off ramp in the region.

While the South China Sea has been the primary theater for Beijing’s maritime insurgency, there are increasing signs that its aggression is metastasizing into the strategic waters of the Indian Ocean as well. Just as China has done through its island-grabbing in the South China Sea, it is now making calculated moves to control key maritime chokepoints and establish an enhanced naval presence across vital Indian Ocean sea lines of communication. From striking deep military logistics deals with regional nations to pursuing advantageous port access agreements, Beijing is shrewdly assembling the infrastructure for force projection in a region stretching from the Strait of Malacca to the Horn of Africa. Its aggressive naval footprint and attempts to squeeze out small nations have stoked fears of a “String of Pearls” maritime encirclement strategy aimed at securing China’s seaborne trade routes and energy shipments. Seemingly taking a page from its South China Sea playbook, Beijing has already begun replicating its tactics of maritime brinkmanship and intimidation of smaller nations’ navies in the Indian Ocean, sowing the seeds for future escalations and incidents.

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