China's restrained response to a US warship entering territorial waters it claims as its own in the South China Sea yesterday reflects Beijing's unwillingness to risk confrontation in the region, analysts say.
But the episode is unlikely to alter Beijing's island-building plans or Washington's determination to conduct more "freedom of navigation" exercises, which means a continued escalation of tensions is almost certain, they told The Straits Times.
The Chinese authorities had monitored, followed and warned US guided missile destroyer USS Lassen after it passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, which China claims as its territory within the Spratlys. This comes after the US military had signalled for weeks that it would do so, to challenge China's claims, which the US does not recognise.
China's Foreign Ministry expressed "strong dissatisfaction" after it confirmed the incident, while its Defence Ministry slammed the US for being "irresponsible" and said it would take all necessary measures to safeguard China's security.
Yet China kept its reactions verbal. Its own vessels seemed to have refrained from aggressive shadowing or attempts to drive the US warship away.
"The US vessel just sailed in and out, while the Chinese just followed," said Dr Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. "Both sides take this issue seriously and their actions are not just for show. But they've also indicated they don't want confrontation."
Commentaries in the Chinese media yesterday called for cool heads to prevail, although they warned that China was not afraid to respond. A Global Times commentary said this was "a test of wisdom and willpower".
China's response appears similar to that when the US scrambled two B-52 bombers over the East China Sea in 2013, after Beijing declared a new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the area.
China had then warned of military action against aircraft entering the ADIZ without notification, but did not respond to the unarmed B-52s. There were no further incidents.
The difference between the two incidents, however, is that the freedom of navigation exercises by the US look set to take place regularly, increasing the risk of incidents at sea. The chances of compromise are also affected by the strong stands taken by both countries on the underlying issues surrounding the South China Sea.
The United States views freedom of navigation around the world as a vital national interest, while China regards it as a matter of sovereign rights which, in its eyes, are indisputable and not negotiable.
Analysts say these US exercises may provoke reactions from China, even though a US defence official was quoted as saying that its actions were not targeted at China, and that more patrols in the coming weeks could be conducted around features that other South China Sea claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang yesterday told a daily briefing that if the United States continued to "create tensions in the region", China might conclude that it had to "increase and strengthen the building-up of our relevant abilities".
"While China may only have issued a verbal protest this time, it may adopt more robust measures against future US freedom of navigation operations," said Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
"If they become routine, they will almost certainly be an increasing source of contention between Washington and Beijing, and could lead to some ugly encounters at sea."