Southeast Asian claimants also shadow Chinese ships that pass near the contested islets and repel Chinese fishing vessels.
Chinese resentment has grown because of U.S. support for the Southeast Asian claimants including regular warship movement in the South China Sea — such as U.S. carrier group exercises earlier this month. Washington, which does not claim the sea, helps train Philippine troops and in 2016 it authorized sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Taiwan already buys advanced U.S. arms.
“I think the PLA [China’s People’s Liberation Army] is playing that game of uncertainty in the minds of everyone else, so that uncertainty claims a buffer of 'don’t take precipitate action in these territories, because we have this option,'” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school.
In Beijing, Standing Committee Chairman Li Shanzhu said the coast guard law “provides legal guarantees for effectively safeguarding national sovereignty, security and maritime rights and interests,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
China’s coast guard has the largest ships of any patrol force in the world, but it cannot match U.S. forces, Vuving said.
China hopes instead to reset relations with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden after a rocky four years under former president Donald Trump, said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center.
“The context of the great power competition in the past four years is already very negative,” Sun said. “If the Chinese have any expectation for improvement, overreaction at this point is not a good strategy.”