In a month-long standoff between China and the Philippines over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, Beijing has so far refrained from sending warships from its increasingly powerful and modern navy to enforce its territorial claims.
Instead, China has deployed patrol vessels from its expanding fleet of paramilitary ships to the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), which is also claimed by Taiwan. Naval experts say the intent is to minimize the risk of conflict and contain any regional backlash.
After alarming some of its neighbors in recent years with assertive behavior in the South China Sea, China has turned to “small stick” diplomacy, using unarmed or lightly armed patrol boats from fisheries, marine surveillance and other civilian agencies, rather than warships.
Shen Dingli (沈丁立), a security expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said the role of these vessels was to demonstrate “soft power” and avoid the impression that China was engaged in gunboat diplomacy.
“Therefore, it is more peaceful and moral,” he said.
However, Beijing has shown no sign of compromise in a standoff that began when Chinese civilian patrol vessels last month intervened to stop the Philippines from arresting Chinese fishermen working in the disputed area. More such incidents are likely, unless the Philippines can provide a counterweight to the challenge, either on its own or with allies, security analysts say.
China’s tough stance comes at a time of spectacular political scandal and swirling rumors of high-level infighting over the sacking of the once high-flying Chongqing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) boss Bo Xilai (薄熙來).
Political analysts say the CCP will be anxious to show that it is has the unity and strength to defend any challenge to the country’s territory ahead of the once-in-a-decade leadership change later this year.
Senior leaders vying for top positions will also be keen to shore up their nationalist credentials with the politically powerful military.
Claiming sovereignty over the group of rocks, reefs and small islands about 220km from the Philippines, patrol vessels and fishing boats from China and the Philippines have been deployed to the area in an increasingly acrimonious confrontation.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense last week took the unusual step of denying reports it was preparing for war, but the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military’s mouthpiece, warned that the Philippines was making “serious mistakes” in maintaining its claim.
“We want to say that anyone’s attempt to take away China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island will not be allowed by the Chinese government, people and armed forces,” it said.
Manila has called for the UN’s International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea to rule on the dispute in the strategically important and resource-rich sea. Half the world’s merchant-fleet tonnage sails across the sea and around these islets each year, carrying US$5 trillion worth of trade.
While Beijing has thus far kept its navy at a distance, the Philippines, like most regional nations, is well aware it would be overwhelmingly outgunned by China’s powerful military if it came to a fight.
After more than two decades of double-digit increases in defense spending, China has an expanding fleet of advanced warships, submarines — now the largest in Asia — and long-range strike aircraft.