Why It Matters

Decoding China's assertiveness

Just when you thought things might calm down after The Hague tribunal delivered its definitive ruling on the South China Sea and that China would be keen to tamp down on tensions ahead of the G-20 meeting, comes more news pointing the other way.

China's assertiveness seems not to have abated. Last Saturday, Beijing, even as it prepared to receive a Philippine presidential envoy for talks, announced that it flew bombers and other military planes over the disputed waters.

The next day, Japan made public that it has made a spate of protests to China over its recent actions in the East China Sea, including military radar that Tokyo believes it has installed on offshore oil rigs.

China, it said, had also been sending coast guard ships into territorial waters of islets controlled by Japan. Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected in New Delhi this week following rising unease over Chinese troops moving into areas south of the fuzzy, undemarcated Sino-Indian border.

What's going on? Some Western intelligence analysts see these developments, combined with the spectacular arrests of some top military brass in Beijing, as connected to President Xi Jinping's moves to consolidate power and impose his authority on the Chinese military.

Internally, the most recent military casualty, news reports suggest, was Major-General Qu Rui, a deputy chief of the Combat Operations Department. His detention would follow the arrests of two former military chiefs, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both close to former president Hu Jintao.

Thus, assertiveness that does not cross a certain threshold plays well to the home galleries while minimising risk on the external front, even as the moves are meant to transmit strategic resolve.

Mr Xi's triggers may include defensive ones too. Some think part of his "China Dream" is to have a military capable of deterring powerful rivals such as the US. Japan's move to revise its Constitution, appoint a hawkish defence minister and take steps towards allowing its military to operate overseas all give Beijing plenty to think about.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Decoding China's assertiveness'. Print Edition | Subscribe