South China Sea Disputes: Recent Developments
China's Growing Assertiveness
If Xi Jinping were inclined to revert to the longstanding policy articulated by Deng Xiaoping of "setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development," there was little hint of it as he began a 10-year stint as head of state, Communist Party leader and commander-in-chief (MFA
PRC, 2000). Addressing the People's National Assembly in mid-March, Xi rallied delegates around the goal of achieving "the great renaissance of the Chinese nation and the Chinese dream" (AFP, 2013). He also called for the People's Liberation Army to strengthen its ability to "win battles," very likely an allusion to possible conflict in China's near seas (AFP, 2013). More to the point, Xi has continued to the pre-existing Chinese policy of using a three-tiered, comprehensive maritime force comprising of civilian fishing vessels, civilian law-enforcement ships, and warships to express China's growing claims to maritime rights and territory.
Beneath Xi's calm demeanour is a tough man who should not be underestimated. His father fought with Mao against the Imperial Japanese Army. To be sure, China under Xi is elevating veteran diplomats and still focusing on economic development and trade, especially in East Asia (Wan, 2013). But some of China's neighbours are concerned about Xi's sharp-edged neighbourhood policy. "The Chinese," a Singaporean official told author Robert Kaplan, "charm you when they want to charm you, and squeeze you when they want to squeeze you, and they do it systematically" (Kaplan, 2012).