It was portrayed as an innocent trip by tourists looking to soak up the rays on a sandy island in the South China Sea. One hundred Chinese left port on Sunday for what was advertised as a three-night cruise – including time on the untouched white beaches of the "Xisha Islands."
But to Vietnam, the arrival of the first Chinese sun-seekers on an atoll Hanoi claims as its own (and calls the Hoang Sa Islands) qualifies as an invasion. Vietnam's Foreign Ministry filed a loud complaint, issuing a statement declaring its own "sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction" over the islands. It wasn't clear whether the tourists had yet reached the disputed islands as of Monday.
The provocative pleasure cruise – which was encouraged by the Chinese government and cheered by state media – is just one way China has tested its neighbours in recent days. Japan, India, the Philippines and Malaysia have also complained recently of Chinese incursions into territory they say is outside Beijing's legal control.
Beijing's new assertiveness is rattling much of Asia and raising questions about what China's new leader, President Xi Jinping, means when he speaks of his ambition to fulfill what he has called "the Chinese Dream." Mr. Xi has only described the Chinese Dream in vague terms – he's defined it as the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" – but others have linked it to the new leadership's explicit commitments to build up the country's military in order to strengthen its positions in territorial disputes with neighbours.
"The new Chinese leadership has created a grand dream for the country. The Chinese dream includes a dream of safeguarding China's maritime security and building China into a strong maritime power," Ju Hailong, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Jinan University, wrote Sunday in the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper known for its nationalist viewpoint.
Writing about the tourists to the Xisha Islands – which were captured by China in a 1974 war and are known in the West as the Paracel Islands – Mr. Ju dismissed Vietnam's claims. "Those who want to manipulate China's moves to make troubles are not admirers of international law and regional security."
Many see a pattern that goes well beyond a $1,150-per-passenger cruise. To the south, India says a company of Chinese soldiers, backed by helicopters, pushed 19 kilometres beyond the de facto India-China border on April 15. They have since set up camp in the Depsang Valley, on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control that was established following a 1962 war between the two countries.
Despite video shown on Indian television of what appears to be a Chinese military encampment just 100 metres from Indian military positions in the Depsang Valley, Beijing says its troops have not crossed the LAC.
To the east, Japan and China remain locked in a tense, months-long showdown over the ownership of five disputed islands in the East China Sea. Eight Chinese surveillance ships entered Japanese-controlled waters last week in an effort to dissuade a flotilla of Japanese activists from landing on the islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The activists were eventually persuaded by the Japan Coast Guard to turn back.
Japanese media reported on the weekend that the Chinese ships were backed that day by more than 40 sorties by military planes, many of them Su-27 and Su-30 fighter jets. "It's an unprecedented threat," an unnamed Japanese official was quoted telling the Sankei Shimbun newspaper. Three Chinese ships entered Japanese-controlled waters again on Monday, the 10th consecutive day of such incursions.
"These policies are not coming out of a well-reflected, 'How do we gain friends in the region?' It's more China taking steps to assert what it claims as its territory," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a specialist in Chinese foreign policy at the International Crisis Group, speaking of the maritime disputes.
"The Chinese have actually been pretty transparent about what they're looking to do. Now they're just doing it. … They want to send a signal across the board."
Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said Mr. Xi appeared to be "completely involved and on-board" with the more assertive policy toward its neighbours.
A white paper on national defence released by Beijing on April 16 made an explicit connection between military power and China's new ideology, saying the military's role was to "safeguard the realization of the 'Chinese Dream.' "
A report by the official Xinhua news agency on the white paper said: "The defensive nature of China's national defence strategy has not changed, but China will not trade its sovereignty and interests for peace."
The most jarring demonstration of China's new assertiveness came in late March, when a People's Liberation Army navy task force of four ships, including an amphibious landing craft, arrived at the James Shoal, an outcrop also claimed by Malaysia that lies only 80 kilometres from the Malaysian coast. The show of force was shocking because the James Shoal is fully 1,800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland.
China claims nearly all of the 3.5 million square-kilometre South China Sea, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. And while Japan and India have large enough militaries (and, in Japan's case, a mutual defence treaty with the United States) to at least give Beijing pause, the countries of Southeast Asia can do little but complain.