China’s audacious land reclamation activities in the South China Sea are only the latest sign that its approach to settling maritime disputes with its neighbors has taken a sharp and dangerous turn. Although China began acting more assertively after perceiving its ascension to great power status in the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing still felt compelled to justify its muscular movements in Asia as necessary reactions to the provocations of “troublemakers” in the region. Sure, China was standing strong, but arguably in response to the adventurism of others. It was more retaliatory than overtly belligerent.
As Beijing made a habit of tempering and justifying its behavior, leading Western analysts developed terms like “reactive assertiveness” and described Chinese revisionism as “cautious and considered.” The seizure of Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea in April 2012 was explained as a compulsory response to the Philippines’ use of a naval vessel (rather than a coast guard ship) to interdict illegal Chinese fishermen.
Similarly, China’s persistent incursions into Japanese-administered waters around the Senkaku Islands have been, according to Beijing, an obligatory answer to Tokyo’s purchase and “nationalization” of the islands in September 2012.