Recently, both the Philippines and South Korean authorities have detained fishing boats from China, and some of those boats haven't been returned. China has been increasingly confronted with sea disputes and challenged by tough stances from the countries involved. These events have been promoting hawkish responses within China, asking the government to take action.
China has emphasized its reluctance in solving disputes at sea via military means on many occasions. Peace is vital for its own economic development. But some of China's neighboring countries have been exploiting China's mild diplomatic stance, making it their golden opportunity to expand their regional interests.
What has recently happened in the South China Sea is a good example. Countries like the Philippines and Vietnam believe China has been under various pressure. They think it is a good time for them to take advantage of this and force China to give away its interests.
Their inspiration is illogical and it is rare to see small countries using "opportunistic strategy" on bigger countries. Hard-line response will cause trouble for China, but if the problems and "pains" these countries bring exceed the risk China has to endure to change its policies and strategies, then a "counter-attack" is likely.
The sea disputes that some countries have created not only threaten China's long-term interests over the sovereignty of its sea borders, but also challenge the unity of China's politics on the issue. Growing voices urging the government to "strike back" will eventually form through influence.
Currently, China's mainstream understanding is that it should first go through the general channels of negotiating with other countries to solve sea disputes. But if a situation turns ugly, some military action is necessary.
This public sentiment will influence China's future foreign policy. Countries currently in sea disputes with China may have failed to spot this tendency, as they still perceive China through conventional wisdom. Thus, the South China Sea, as well as other sensitive sea areas, will have a higher risk of serious clashes.
If these countries don't want to change their ways with China, they will need to prepare for the sounds of cannons. We need to be ready for that, as it may be the only way for the disputes in the sea to be resolved.
Conflicts and disputes over the sovereignty of the seas in East Asia and South Asia are complicated. No known method exists to solve these issues in a peaceful way. Although China has proposed a strategy that calls for countries in the region to put away differences and work on shared interests, few have responded.
The reality is that each country in the region believes it has what it takes to force China to bow down. China wants to remain calm but it is a lonely role to play. China will have to adjust itself for this reality.