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Showdown in the South China Sea

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For some time now, China has been growing increasingly aggressive toward its neighbours. This newly confident foreign policy, a shift from a decade of charming other nations in Asia, has been most evident in Beijing’s demands that other nations recognise its sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. In recent weeks, Beijing has insisted that Vietnam stop exploring for oil in the waters and delivered a blunt warning to outside powers – i.e. the United States – not to intervene in any disputes over the Sea. Chinese vessels have cut the cables on Vietnamese ships, and China has stepped up its seizures of Vietnamese and Philippine boats, in a major breach of maritime protocol.

None of China’s neighbours have accepted its claims. Vietnam this week conducted live fire exercises in the South China Sea, and at a recent international conference in Singapore, senior Vietnamese officials roamed the sidelines, rounding up the support of delegates from other Asian nations, as well as from the United States, which has built a close security relationship with Vietnam in recent years. Meanwhile, the Philippines has increased its spending on naval equipment, as have Malaysia and Vietnam, which has started buying up submarines. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has chronicled a growing arms race in Southeast Asia, with many countries boosting arms purchases by more than 50 per cent over the past five years.

China seemed surprised by the toughness of Vietnam’s response. Chinese officials I spoke with appeared to think that Beijing’s actions would be accepted by its neighbours – or at least that they’d protest but give in. Perhaps, in its dizzying rise to great power status, sped up by the decline of the West and the global economic crisis, China – like the US long before it – has begun to believe its own hype, to convince itself that it is a force for world peace and prosperity, and that anyone who stands in its way is simply misguided.

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