China has been a player in a couple of my novels, now. The Devil You Don’t Know dealt in part with the PRC’s dealings with Mexican cartels. Kill Yuan is set on the periphery of the perennial flashpoint of the South China Sea. Neither are new, though the South China Sea is becoming more and more of a focus, as China continues to push the US Navy as well as all of their maritime neighbors to the south, including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
The Spratlys have been a flashpoint with China’s neighbors for decades. The Chinese claim actually, according to Beijing and Taipei (which claims the islands under the auspices of the Nationalist Chinese government that preceded Mao’s Red China), dates back to the Han Dynasty, in 2 BC. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines also claim the islands. In recent years, the PRC has begun building up reefs in the South China Sea into artificial islands, claiming that these are for scientific research such as fish population studies, though, in spite of the conspicuous operation of civilian airliners on the artificial island on Fiery Reef, there appears to be plenty of military equipment on the islands. They have had the effect of strengthening China’s claim on the South China Sea, effectively in a “possession is 9/10 of the law” sort of way.
Now, they are preparing to run an expansive series of military drills in the South China Sea, the Xinhua News Agency has reported. They’ve been announcing these fairly regularly, ostensibly to demonstrate that they’re being transparent with their military movements in the region, though the announcements can also be read as declarations of their own strength in the area. There have already been tensions between China and the US, as the US Navy has been conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises with destroyers passing through the South China Sea, effectively serving notice that the USN is watching to make sure that the sea lanes passing through the region aren’t cut.
So far, most of the tensions have been rather more diplomatic than military, as China expresses its dislike of USN ships by denying berth in Hong Kong. See this article.
There’s an interesting contrast here between what is being said publicly, trying to downplay the hostility between the two powers, and what is going on out on the water. First, the public statement:
“But the very fact that we’re on this pier, that our two navies, our two countries, don’t let that minor hurdle get in the way of our relationships. Our, the relationship between our two countries is much too important for a port visit to get in the way of that,” Aucoin told reporters.
Then, only a couple paragraphs later:
“We are seeing Chinese fishing trawlers provoking the United States Navy, carrying out sovereign acts, but just over the horizon is the PLA,” said Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.
“So our biggest concern is about a miscalculation. But their coast guard has not been transparent in terms of what their intent is,” he said at a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations.
How much of this is simply an attempt to assert Chinese dominance in the region, and how much of it is active provocation, is hard to say. There has been a fair bit of what little information that comes out of China that indicates that the PLA, which is sorely lacking in combat experience, has been chafing at the bit to go after the US for decades. There is plenty of evidence to point to that they have been attacking US interests indirectly.
Where this ultimately goes is anyone’s guess at this point. China is pushing, and as Zukunft said above, one miscalculation could have some pretty severe consequences.