China has scored some big wins lately in the rollout of its new infrastructure bank, the AIIB, as well as in its massive deal with Pakistan. But these headline grabbing bits of soft power diplomacy don’t mean that China has backed off its aggressive territorial agenda in the South China Sea. After something of a lull, Chinese ships are once again getting pushy with the ships of their South China Sea neighbors. Reuters reports:
The presidential palace in Manila said China’s coast guard used water cannon on Monday to drive away a group of Filipino fishermen at Scarborough Shoal, damaging some of their wooden boats. Chinese ships rammed a fishing boat in the area a few months back. […]“China has no right to use water cannon on the poor fishermen,” Renato Reyes, secretary-general of left-wing activist group Bayan (Nation), said in a statement, while criticizing the government’s dependence on the U.S. military to protect the country.
China has done this kind of thing before, but this round of “water wars” is perhaps more significant because Philippine and U.S. troops are currently holding major combat exercises. The drills are intended “to simulate the re-taking of an island occupied by enemy forces in northwestern Zambales province,” according to Philippine officials. The official line from both sides is that these drills have nothing to do with China’s recent belligerence or its land reclamation projects in waters claimed by the Philippines, but we should take these disavowals with several grains of salt. The Air Force Times:
Shortly before overseeing the start of the military exercises, Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. held a news conference to release surveillance photos showing Chinese reclamation of eight previously submerged reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, saying Beijing’s actions increase the risk of an accidental confrontation.“We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China’s aggressiveness that has created tensions not only among the countries who have overlapping claims in the area,” Catapang said.
China may now be mixing in a bit more carrot with the stick, but none of the conditions that make East Asia a geopolitical powder keg have gone away.