China Tests Limits in South China Sea, Seeking Provocation Without Escalation

China’s actions in the South China Sea continue to test the boundaries of aggression, with recent incidents involving lasers aimed at Philippine ships and water cannons fired at them. While China’s sweeping claims over the region were invalidated by a U.N.-backed tribunal in 2016, it has persisted in asserting territorial dominance through maneuvers, blockades, and other provocative actions. These acts have drawn criticism from affected nations, as well as from the U.S., Japan, and others. Despite international condemnation, China remains unapologetic, justifying its behavior as legal and essential for protecting its interests.

Analysts suggest that China might be intentionally provoking a military response from opposing claimants or their allies, potentially leading to a more dangerous escalation. However, thus far, no nation involved has engaged militarily with China over the issue. The Philippines, for instance, has pursued diplomatic channels to address grievances. Yet, short of military conflict, China continues to push boundaries, seemingly gauging how much it can get away with.

Collin Koh, a regional security analyst, notes that the South China Sea matter involves not only sovereignty and power rivalry but also the moral high ground. China aims to avoid being the first to initiate hostilities, which could weaken its position on multiple fronts.

Although China’s use of water cannons was risky, it may not be deemed an “armed attack” triggering a defense treaty between the U.S. and the Philippines. Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst, explains that an armed attack typically results in significant damage or loss of life.

Certain “red lines” exist, according to Koh, that China is cautious not to cross—such as using firearms or more substantial weaponry. Crossing these lines could prompt a new legal challenge against China and encourage a forceful response from the Philippines’ allies. The 2016 Hague ruling suggests that such a challenge would likely not favor China. Furthermore, an unprovoked armed attack might rally the Philippines’ allies in the region to respond collectively.