Far from calming the troubled waters of the western Pacific, President Obama's latest visit to Asia seems to have instead encouraged China to more aggressively pursue its territorial claims. We may have entered a new stage of Chinese territorial assertiveness

Emphasising intimidation over calibrated accommodation, China has upgraded its 'small stick diplomacy' by pursuing a more assertive territorial strategy, combining expanded para-military patrols with accelerated reclamation activities and the dispatch of state of the art deep-water oil rigs into neighbouring states' exclusive economic zones (EEZs). 

After years of patient, high-level negotiations with Beijing, Vietnam is now grappling with an upsurge in its territorial disputes with China. After its decision to dispatch HYSY981 deep into Vietnam's EEZ, China has upped the ante by dispatching more oil rigs into contested waters and prohibiting state-owned companies from bidding for new projects in Vietnam. During his crucial visit to Hanoi, supposedly to de-escalate bilateral tensions, Yang Jiechie, a former foreign minister and among China's most-respected diplomats, ended up scolding his hosts for 'hyping' the maritime disputes.

Cognisant of Washington's unwillingness to provide categorical military support to the Philippines if a war were to erupt over contested features in the South China Sea, China has openly admitted to have been engaged in construction activities in the Spratly chain of islands, a clear violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), which discourages claimants from unilaterally altering the status quo. 

By artificially converting rudimentary features into islands, China aims to consolidate its legal claims by establishing effective sovereignty over the area while also building a network of airstrips and military garrisons to support any prospective Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. In an explicit demonstration of its hardening territorial stance, China has also unveiled a new map which unabashedly reflects Beijing's maximalist interpretation of its territorial claims.

The new map is worrying on two levels. First, it signals China's treatment of its territorial claims in the area as a 'core interest', since most features in the South China Sea are depicted as integral elements of the country's territorial limits. Second, the map taps into an upsurge of popular nationalism in the country, with the Chinese authorities intent on 'promoting citizens' better understanding of...maintaining (China's) maritime rights and territorial integrity.' The strategic implication is clear: China will prove increasingly inflexible in openly compromising on its territorial disputes in the western Pacific.

The alarming deterioration in the maritime disputes has even encouraged the ever-cautious Singapore to speak out against China, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong calling for a rule-based resolution of the disputes, implicitly decrying China's 'might is right' approach to settling its maritime claims. 

Left with shrinking strategic options, the Philippines and Vietnam have embraced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's vision of a more pro-active Japanese policy in the region. Since his return to power in late-2012, Abe has tirelessly sought to deepen Tokyo's strategic footprint in Southeast Asia, presenting his country as a counterweight to China and offering up to US$20 billion in economic incentives to the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Through the doctrine of 'Abenomics', he has also sought to end Japan's decades-long economic stagnation in order to support a more robust Japanese foreign policy.

Faced with significant domestic opposition to the proposed amendment of the Japanese pacifist constitution, the Abe administration has instead pushed for a 'reinterpretation' of Tokyo's defence obligations. The ultimate aim is to allow Japanese Self Defence Forces to play a direct role in securing sea lines of communication and aiding security allies if an armed conflict erupts in international waters, particularly in the South China Sea. The US and the Philippines have welcomed Abe's efforts to upgrade Japan's defence policy, with Philippine President Benigno Aquino enthusiastically endorsing a larger Japanese military role in Asia.

China's growing assertiveness has enhanced its position in the South China Sea, but at the expense of empowering a historical rival, Japan, which is pursuing a new leadership role in the region.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.