In May 2014 China started to drill for oil near the Paracel Islands, an area claimed by both Vietnam and China as territorial waters, which led to considerable diplomatic tensions and violent actions against Chinese enterprises in Vietnam.
Analysis China’s recent activity reveals an increasing assertiveness, which has raised concerns about possible military actions in the South China Sea. One could argue that China’s latest undertaking is proof of its increasingly threatening behavior, thereby confirming the "China threat" thesis. However, when analyzing the context of the South China Sea disputes in recent years, the aforementioned events are consistent with an increasingly assertive behavior demonstrated by several claimant states. China’s conduct in the South China Sea is determined by local conflict dynamics and should therefore not dictate Chinese foreign policy in other areas.
At first glance, China’s behavior could be interpreted as symptomatic of a Country that is attempting to change the world order. This could provide the United States and Japan, who are increasingly distrustful of China, with justification for further containing China and embarking on a more confrontational course with the Chinese government.
Politics in the South China Sea, where the territorial claims of several states overlap, are marked by a high degree of legal ambiguity, symbolic actions and Nationalist resentment. Any provocative action should be interpreted within this conflict context.
Although China’s behavior in the South China Sea has indeed become increasingly assertive, so has that of several other claimant states – among them the Philippines and Vietnam. Therefore, China’s drilling activities should not be taken as evidence of a growing boldness in other policy areas but rather as part of China’s strategy in the South China Sea.
The perception of an increasingly assertive China does not stand up to an examination of its actual behavior in international politics. However, acting according to this perception in the longer run could create mistrust and frustration on the Chinese side and turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Rising Sino-Vietnamese Tensions in the South China Sea, GIGA Focus International Edition English, 08, October, urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-405527(2014),
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General Editor GIGA Focus Series: Prof. Dr. Sabine Kurtenbach
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