South China Sea on a Boil
Nationalist Pressure Rises in China

Amidst all the news since the Hague ruling against Beijing’s South China Sea claims, one thing has been notably absent: a forceful response from China. Sure, the usual spokesmen gave the expected condemnations. But China has, so far, not announced any major construction projects in the Spratlys or nearly crashed into American fighters. Instead, Beijing seems to be taking a quieter tack: using its diplomatic influence to keep ASEAN at bay and offering direct talks to Manila.

This approach, Reuters reports, isn’t satisfying many of China’s hawks:

“The People’s Liberation Army is ready,” one source with ties to the military told Reuters.

“We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979,” the source said, referring to China’s brief invasion of Vietnam to punish Hanoi for forcing Beijing’s ally the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia.

The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

President Xi Jinping has assiduously courted and thoroughly cemented his leadership over the PLA and faces no serious challenges to his command.

While he is overseeing sweeping military reforms to improve the PLA’s ability to win wars, he has said China needs a stable external environment as it deals with its own development issues, including a slowing economy. And few people expect any significant move ahead of Xi’s hosting of a G20 summit in September.

But the hardened response to The Hague ruling from some elements of the military increases the risk that any provocative or inadvertent incidents in the South China Sea could escalate into a more serious clash.

Elsewhere, the article quotes a “senior Beijing-based diplomat” who says of the Chinese, “They’re on the back foot. They’re very worried by the international reaction.”

For now, it appears that cooler heads are prevailing, with both military and civilian officials acutely aware that their navy lacks the capabilities to go head-to-head with Washington. Nonetheless, the pressure is building and even with the status quo, there’s room for miscalculation.

President Xi and his predecessors have stoked nationalist fires for years, and it’s not going to be easy for him to back down or sit put for long. Chinese citizens have repeatedly been told by their leaders that the U.S. and others are trying to keep China away from its sovereign territory. So although it’s good that Xi is being cautious, it’s an open question as to how long it will be before Xi feels like he has to do something to placate the forces he has whipped up. Has the storm been avoided, or is this merely the calm before it is to begin in earnest?

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