China was upset about our freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea. But they were restrained in practice:
The Chinese side took no forceful action during the USS Lassen's sail-by on Tuesday, but strenuously protested the maneuver. China's reaction fits the pattern in similar such incidents in recent years. Yang offered no details on how Beijing might respond differently in the future.
"We would urge the U.S. not to continue down the wrong path. But if the U.S. side does continue, we will take all necessary measures according to the need," Yang said. China's resolve to safeguard its national sovereignty and security interests is "rock-solid," he added.
Public reaction in China was equally strenuous despite official caution:
In the run-up to Tuesday's operation, Beijing repeatedly warned that it would take firm action against any country that violated its territorial sovereignty.
But when the long-awaited patrol finally arrived, Beijing only tracked and warned away the vessel, without intervening physically. ...
Chinese netizens demanded a stronger response from the authorities, which portray themselves as a major global power and have at their command the world's largest military, an increasing point of pride.
The Chinese government spoke loudly but did not use a stick.
So the Chinese government which has spent a couple decades stoking xenophobic nationalism in the public raised expectations of resisting such an American operation--and then did nothing.
At what point will the Chinese party-run government feel so pressured by a public clamor to do something--as they've been trained to expect--when we do the same again?
And how does the Chinese military feel? They have all this new hardware and they're feeling newly powerful.
They are much more powerful than their recent past, to be sure, but do they realize they are not all-powerful?
How much of that xenophobic nationalism has the Chinese military internalized, anyway? If there is a crisis, will the Chinese military push for action when the party wants to show restraint?
Will the Chinese military act on its own to "stand up" for China and force the Chinese Communist Party to follow lest the public turn against the party?
I wouldn't assume our next freedom of navigation operation is unopposed.
Do I expect the Chinese to shoot? No. But I'd expect them to use fishing vessels to try to foul our propellers--perhaps with fishing nets--and then send in their Coast Guard vessels to board and/or tow our ship to "rescue" it while Chinese warships watch the operation.
Our rational is not their rational. And we don't even know for sure who we have to judge "rational."