Xi’s calls for peace following APEC summit at odd with China’s continued pugilism

On November 17, Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping reinforced his country’s position in adhering to a path of development as he concluded his first visit to the U.S. in six years. 

“The fundamental goal of China’s development is to improve the well-being of the Chinese people, not to replace anyone,” the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying in a speech made at the end of last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

Xi opined that countries should “build an open, dynamic, strong and peaceful Asia-Pacific community”, and urged for an open and fair environment for technology development. He also encouraged his counterparts to protect free, open trade and investment and maintain the stability of global industrial and supply chains.

Likewise, the Chinese leader also claimed on November 15 that China wanted friendly ties with the U.S. and that his nation will not wage a war with anyone, among his most explicit comments articulating a desire for peaceful relations between his country and the U.S.

During a speech to business executives following his meeting with U.S. president Joe Biden, Xi said China “never bets against the United States” and “has no intention to challenge the United States or to unseat it”. 

Additionally, observers contended that Xi portrayed his softer side throughout his U.S visit. Hours after recalling his first trip to the U.S. almost four decades ago to Biden, Xi publicly accepted a National Basketball Association team’s jersey from California Governor Gavin Newsom and hinted that Beijing would send pandas to U.S. zoos.

Yet, skeptics remain unconvinced as to whether the public show of geniality was merely a facade. After all, nearer to home, in the disputed South China Sea waters, the pugilistic actions of China’s military and coast guard toward the U.S. and other nations in the Indo-Pacific have drawn widespread flak.

For instance, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, criticized the Chinese military and coast guard in November for creating “tense, uncomfortable situations”, accusing Beijing for staging about 180 aggressive or coercive military acts since he took command in the fall of 2021.

“They are increasingly provocative and it’s deeply concerning,” Paparo said, based on a transcript given to news outlet Stars and Stripes by the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “At times, they’ve hazarded themselves, and they’ve hazarded the people that are in the vessels and aircraft they’ve interacted with.” 

Paparo’s remarks were made in light of years of regional tensions between Washington and Beijing. 

Over the past couple of years, the U.S. has repeatedly championed its stance regarding a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, especially with regard to navigational and economic rights. 

On its end, the communist regime in Beijing, which claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters, views foreign activity in the Indo-Pacific as a threat to regional stability. 

Paparo said Beijing’s South China Sea claims were “unlawful claims with no basis in international law” and that Beijing wants to create tough situations so that the U.S. and its partners “will vacate the space that every force has a right to be”.

Insisting that the U.S. does not perpetuate aggressive behavior, Paparo said that Chinese forces were “greeted with safe and professional behavior” from the U.S. when the Chinese operated near American waters close to Alaska or Guam.

Similarly, Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles on November18 voiced grave concerns to China after an “unsafe and unprofessional” interaction between an Australian navy vessel and Chinese warship left Australian military divers injured.

Marles said that the HMAS Toowoomba, a long-range frigate, was conducting a diving operation in Japan’s exclusive economic zone on November 14 to clear fishing nets from its propellers when the incident happened. 

“While diving operations were under way, a PLA-N destroyer (DDG-139) operating in the vicinity closed towards HMAS Toowoomba,” Marles declared in a statement, alluding to a ship of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Marles stated that notwithstanding the Australian vessel informing the Chinese warship of the diving operation and requesting that it steer clear, the destroyer approached “at a closer range”.

“Soon after, it was detected operating its hull-mounted sonar in a manner that posed a risk to the safety of the Australian divers who were forced to exit the water.”

The conduct was “unsafe and unprofessional”, Marles lambasted. 

Medical assessments found the divers had sustained minor injuries that were most likely attributable to the destroyer’s sonar, he elaborated. 

“Australia expects all countries, including China, to operate their militaries in a professional and safe manner,” Marles proclaimed, adding that the safety and well-being of Australian military personnel was the government’s “utmost priority”.

Earlier in 2023, Australia, a close ally of the U.S., staged two weeks of war games involving over 30,000 troops with the U.S. in a display of force amid China’s rising military assertiveness in the region. 

In June 2023, the U.S. Navy also posted a video of what it slammed as an “unsafe interaction” in the Taiwan Strait, in which a Chinese warship crossed in front of a U.S. destroyer in the sensitive waterway, a provocative incident amid worsening Sino-U.S. ties.

The encounters amid bilateral disagreements over issues ranging from trade and Taiwan to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, raised the risk of further confrontations.

Notably, the U.S. military said the USS Chung-Hoon, a destroyer, and Canada’s HSMC Montreal, a frigate, were conducting a routine transit of the Taiwan Strait when the Chinese ship cut in front of the U.S. vessel, coming within 150 yards (137 meters).

In the video, published by the U.S. Navy, a Chinese warship could clearly be seen sailing across the path of the Chung-Hoon in calm waters.

A voice could be detected in English, apparently sending a radio message to the Chinese ship, cautioning against “attempts to limit freedom of navigation”.

In response, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, contended that Chinese military actions at that time were “completely reasonable, legitimate, and professional and safe”, accusing the U.S. for causing “trouble and provocation first, while China dealt with it in accordance with the law and regulations”.  

Subsequently, China’s military blasted the U.S. and Canada for “deliberately provoking risk” with the rare joint sailing.

Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping told Reuters that this “point blank interception” was proof of both the capabilities and “courage” of China’s navy.

“The more intensified the provocation from the United States, the stronger the countermeasures from China,” Song said.

On May 26, the U.S. lampooned a Chinese fighter jet for staging an “unnecessarily aggressive” maneuver near a U.S. military plane over the South China Sea in international airspace.

“It seems to me that Beijing has instructed its forces to respond more assertively against what it believes are encroaching U.S. and allied forces,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank.

“By doing so, China is only increasing the chances for miscalculation – namely ships or aircraft accidentally colliding – that could then spiral into armed conflict, ”he added.

In recent years, China has emerged to become an increasingly assertive power in the Indo-Pacific region, including boosting security ties with the Solomon Islands in July last year. 

Xi and Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare jointly announced the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership, according to reports by CCP mouthpiece Chinese CCTV. 

“China and Pacific island countries are both developing countries and should strengthen mutual assistance within the framework of South-South cooperation,” Xi said during his meeting with Sogavare at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

CCTV added that the partnership was agreed “with mutual respect and common development” but gave no further details.

Both countries also signed a new deal on police cooperation, bolstering their bilateral partnership four years after the Pacific island nation severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and formally established ties with Beijing.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) detected four Chinese military aircraft and three naval vessels around Taiwan between 6 am local time on December 18 and 6 am local time on December 19. 

Additionally, one Chinese balloon was discovered at 9.09 a.m. on December 18 crossing the Taiwan Strait median line, around 124 kilometers (67 nautical miles) northwest of Keelung at an altitude of approximately 4,572 meters (15,000 ft). The balloon traveled east and vanished at 11.52 am, the Taiwanese MND said.

China regards Taiwan as its own territory, a claim the government in Taipei strongly dismisses.

Since September 2020, China has increased its use of gray zone tactics by increasing the number of military aircraft and naval ships operating around Taiwan.

Gray zone tactics allude to an effort or series of efforts beyond steady-state deterrence and assurance that attempts to achieve one’s security objectives without resort to direct and sizable use of force.

China’s persistence in provocative actions in the contested South China Sea waters and Taiwan Strait could derail Xi’s official calls for regional peace after his recent APEC meeting with Biden. China would have to face strategic choices that it has to make, between either being a peaceful actor in these disputed waters or risk worsening ties with the U.S. and regional countries and contributing to regional instability.

Photo credit: iStock/ Tomas Ragina

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more