October 3, 2023

China’s actions in the South China Sea are causing growing concerns as experts suggest the country might be deliberately provoking a military response from opposing claimants or their allies in order to justify its own use of force. This strategy could push the boundaries and provoke dangerous escalations in an already tense region. While none of the involved nations have engaged in direct military conflict with China over the issue, the situation remains precarious.Recent incidents, such as China’s use of a water cannon against a Filipino vessel, highlight its approach of testing limits without triggering a full-scale military confrontation. The Philippines has opted for diplomatic channels to address its grievances, expressing concerns through diplomatic means. However, China seems to be gauging the extent of its actions and how much it can get away with without triggering major backlash.

Collin Koh, a regional security analyst from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, points out that China is treading carefully to avoid being the first to initiate military action. Such an action could weaken its position on multiple fronts and undermine its international standing. The distinction between provocative actions and armed attacks is crucial, as only the latter might trigger mutual defense treaties or galvanize regional allies to respond with force.Experts argue that there are certain “red lines” China would hesitate to cross, including the use of firearms or missiles. These actions would likely lead to legal challenges and strong international responses. Instead, China seems to be employing a strategy of gradual erosion, aiming to weaken the ability of other parties, like the Philippines, to respond effectively over time.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, notes that while actions like the water cannon incident are dangerous, they might not be classified as “armed attacks.” For instance, the mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines wouldn’t be triggered by such actions. This allows China to chip away at regional responses without facing immediate military consequences.China’s approach appears designed to challenge the regional credibility of its opponents’ alliances, particularly with the United States. By undermining the perception of security partnerships, China may be seeking to isolate its rivals and bolster its own strategic position in the South China Sea, a vital waterway for trade and security in the region.