A Chinese naval task force, including its most modern amphibious ship, a guided-missile destroyer, and two frigates, was recently sighted operating off James Shoal, 50 miles off the coast of Malaysia. James Shoal is claimed by Malaysia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as Taiwan.
The appearance of the Chinese task force in these waters bears watching, for it is yet another example of Beijing asserting its territorial claims to the entire South China Sea. What is striking, however, is that this effort is directed at Malaysia rather than Vietnam or the Philippines. Unlike Hanoi and Manila, Kuala Lumpur has generally been quiet about its dispute with Beijing over their territorial claims; it is not clear why Beijing would choose to underscore its claims against Malaysia at this moment.
Indeed, given reports of a Chinese law enforcement ship shooting at a Vietnamese fishing boat, as well as the decision of the Philippines to press for arbitration in its dispute with the PRC over their respective South China Sea claims, one would have expected Beijing to not antagonize yet another claimant. Moreover, that the Chinese ships are part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, rather than drawn from one of the various law enforcement agencies, is even more disturbing, for it may indicate a greater willingness to militarize the disputes.
There had been hopes that the new Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would pursue a more conciliatory line once they had formally acceded to both Party and governmental positions. Instead, Chinese policy on maritime boundary disputes appears to be hardening.
In this light, recent Chinese actions, including reportedly locking a fire control radar on Japanese vessels, take on a much more alarming hue. Given the announced consolidation of the Chinese civilian maritime law enforcement entities (including China Maritime Surveillance, which reportedly fired upon the Vietnamese fishing vessel), Beijing appears intent upon establishing “escalation dominance” within its littoral waters with a range of options, including civilian agencies that can use force and less-than-lethal behaviors by the PLA.
For China’s neighbors—and the United States—a confrontation appears to be increasingly hard to avoid.