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Beijing's increasing aggression in South China sea: Signs of rattled hegemonic bully losing influence

The context of this aggression shows that it is a facade being put up to mask how rattled China really is—rattled because it feels cornered by the kind of pushback it is now facing from countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Beijing increasing aggression in South China sea: Signs of rattled hegemonic bully losing influence AJR
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First Published Jun 23, 2024, 6:05 PM IST

By Aritra Banerjee

(Aritra Banerjee is the co-author of the book The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing The Voyage.)

China's behaviour in the South China Sea has always been aggressive. However, in recent years, Beijing has become noticeably more belligerent in the region. Asserting control, which was earlier mostly about patrols and the trademark "wolf warrior diplomacy", has now shifted gears. Incidents of violent clashes, those where Chinese personnel injure troops from other nations and its warships attack other nations' vessels with water cannons, are almost commonplace.

However, the context of this aggression shows that it is a facade being put up to mask how rattled China really is—rattled because it feels cornered by the kind of pushback it is now facing from countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Allow me to delve into some detail– more context and evidence to support this argument, if you will.

First, a look at some instances that show China has become more aggressive than before.
Instances of Aggression

This month, the confrontation between Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) personnel, who were armed with knives and axes, and troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines garnered a lot of attention.

In May, CCG personnel were involved in another significant scuffle with the Philippines when they harassed Filippino service members being medically evacuated and unlawfully seized airdropped provisions in the Second Thomas Shoal.

It's not just attacks on personnel. China has routinely attacked ships in the contested waters of the South China Sea with water cannons. While the Philippines has been on the receiving end of most of these aggressions, it is not the only target. Malaysia and Indonesia, too, have seen a rise in China's assertiveness, although it has not come to the point of physical altercations as much.

The point to focus on is this: In some parts of the South China Sea, Beijing's pattern of aggression was to conduct routine patrols and send its "maritime militia", also known as its "Third Sea Force", comprised of seemingly civilian ships. Now, that aggression has been ramped up. Physical violence and attacks happen much more frequently. In parts where only a couple of ships would go to patrol, now swarms of warships go– all to show off China's military might and reaffirm its influence.

But this escalation reflects a deeper anxiety within Beijing. Here's a look at why China is anxious.

Why China's Feathers Are Ruffled

China is increasingly rattled by the pushback it is receiving. Its aggressive behaviour can be seen as a reaction to the growing resistance from neighbouring countries. Under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Philippines has adopted a more assertive approach towards China's claims in the South China Sea. Manila has increased joint military exercises with the U.S. and other allies, signalling its readiness to counter Chinese aggression.

Vietnam has also fortified its positions on several occupied features in the Spratly Islands, enhancing military infrastructure and deploying additional personnel. Malaysia has taken a firmer stance against Chinese incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In early 2024, the Royal Malaysian Navy conducted a high-profile operation to intercept and shadow Chinese survey vessels operating within Malaysia's EEZ.

Meanwhile Indonesia continues to defy China's warnings to stop drilling oil around the Natuna Islands– a territory China claims as its own.

The resistance from Southeast Asian countries has been bolstered by increasing international support. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India have all stepped up their engagement in the region, conducting freedom of navigation operations, joint military exercises, and providing defence support to regional allies. The Quad has played a pivotal role in coordinating efforts to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, further complicating China's strategic calculations.

Maritime Bullying: A Result Of China's Insecurity

As these countries become more assertive in defending their maritime rights, Beijing finds itself increasingly rattled. With China's own economic growth on the down-low, its trade leverage with these nations has suffered. Mounting internal and external challenges has created a need for the Chinese leadership to demonstrate that it is still in control.

Amid this, a cornered dragon finds itself baring its fangs in an effort to hide its own insecurity and cling on to its dream of fulfilling its own hegemonic ambitions.

These dynamics of regional resistance and Chinese aggression are a testament to the volatility of the South China Sea disputes. How this plays out remains to be seen.

Views expressed are personal.

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