Editor's note: John D. Ciorciari is a Bernard Schwartz Associate Fellow at the Asia Society in New York and an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
(CNN) -- Tempers are flaring again across the South China Sea.
Vietnam has conducted unprecedented live-fire naval exercises after accusing Chinese ships of entering its territorial waters and attacking its oil-exploration vessels twice in the past month.
While Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei has declared that China "will not resort to the use of force," an intense diplomatic duel continues. Nationalist forces are brewing in both countries, and a non-negligible risk of war remains.
The row shows the considerable challenges China faces in defending its controversial claims over the area. The PRC has long declared ownership of the waters around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, refusing to countenance its rivals' claims. Its map of the region includes a nine-dash line that American scholar Donald Emmerson has compared to a "giant lapping tongue" thrust towards China's neighbors.
In recent years, the PRC has generally tried to follow early 20th century US President Teddy Roosevelt's advice to "speak softly and carry a big stick."
During his first visit to the annual Shangri-La Strategic Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie reiterated that "China unswervingly follows the path of peaceful development" and that it will "never seek hegemony or military expansion."
Most of China's neighbors, though, are not convinced. They believe Beijing's gentle rhetoric belies more bruising behavior in the Paracels and Spratlys.
With a relatively new naval base on Hainan Island and a modernizing fleet, China has greater ability to intimidate its neighbors. There are signs that it is increasingly willing to do so.
In addition to this week's Vietnamese allegations of a "premeditated and carefully calculated" attack against an oil-exploration boat, the Philippines has accused Chinese vessels of "bullying" its ships and firing on unarmed fisherman in late February. In a symbolic step of defiance, the Philippines have just rechristened the South China Sea the "West Philippine Sea." It also removed some Chinese markers in disputed waters.
Assertions of Chinese sea power may please some in Beijing, feeding nationalist impulses and supporting calls for a robust blue-water navy. However, at least in the near term, a heavy-handed approach is unlikely to serve Chinese interests.
The regional backlash complicates Beijing's overall relations with Southeast Asia and tends to drive nervous neighbors back toward an American security umbrella. In the past month, Vietnam, the Philippines, and others have called for U.S. support, and the USS Chung-Hoon, a formidable destroyer, has reportedly been dispatched to ensure "freedom of navigation."
For the PRC, there lies the tactical rub. China prefers to bilateralize the complex competing claims in the Paracels and Spratlys, leaning on smaller neighbors to secure serial concessions. The other claimants prefer multilateralizing the issue, so the (relative) Lilliputians can gang up on Gulliver and invoke shared norms for protection while the U.S. Seventh Fleet floats comfortingly on the horizon.
For China, preventing multilateralization requires a kind of "wedge strategy" that convinces some rival claimants to abandon others and to drift away from the United States. The PRC has tried both honey and vinegar, exploring joint development options at times and resorting to shows of force at others. Neither has been very successful to date.
A diplomatic approach draws other claimants to the negotiating table, but it steers toward the types of interactions in which China has a less decided advantage. Moreover, a gentle PRC does not scare rival claimants from banding together.
Taking a tougher approach also poses problems. Although China has much need for energy, it has little incentive to wage war in an area where the U.S. navy maintains a commanding lead and where protecting territory would bear heavy economic and diplomatic costs. Even threats short of conflict incline neighbors to seek outside help from America and confirm suspicions about the gap between China's words and intentions.
China's current approach reflects an apparent effort to steer between these alternatives. The PRC is using threats to prevent others from solidifying their claims while trying to creep outward and awaiting a time when its navy might change cost-benefit equations across the region. In the meantime, it risks undermining a reasonably successful "charm offensive" in Southeast Asia and feeding forces that raise the possibility of undesired conflict.