There is a saying in international diplomacy: watch what countries do, rather than what they say. China's recent actions in asserting its claims to ownership and other forms of jurisdiction over about 80 per cent of the South China Sea speak louder than its oft-repeated soothing words that it is not seeking hegemony.
The actions in the past month include: 1) offering oil and gas exploration and production rights to Chinese and foreign partner companies to 160,000 square kilometres of waters off Vietnam, despite protests from Hanoi that the area belongs to Vietnam and is already under lease; 2) the despatch of an unusually large fishing fleet of 30 boats, escorted by a 3000-tonne patrol vessel, to part of the disputed Spratly Islands also claimed by the Philippines; 3) and a warning from China's Defence Ministry that ''combat-ready'' Chinese naval and air patrols are ready to ''protect our maritime rights and interests'' in the South China Sea.
With the Association of South-East Asian Nations, divided over how to deal with China's sweeping South China Sea claims and external powers evidently unwilling to constrain Beijing, the way is clear for further Chinese expansion.
Beijing is taking advantage of what it sees as the weakness of ASEAN, the US, Japan, Australia and others to push its control mechanisms southwards and ever deeper into the maritime heart of south-east Asia.
Meanwhile, China has clarified the extent and nature of its controversial claim to control a vast swathe of the South China Sea. The official Xinhua news agency said on July 19 that China had ''sovereignty'' over an area of 1.5 million square kilometres, stretching as far south as James Shoal. The shoal is about 1800 kilometres from the Chinese mainland.
Xinhua did not specify where China's sovereignty covered. But it certainly includes the three largest disputed archipelagos: the Paracel Islands, which China occupies despite counter claims and protests from Vietnam; the Macclesfield Bank and Scarborough Shoal contested with the Philippines and Taiwan; and the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed in full or part by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Xinhua said that in ''another move to assert sovereignty'', China had last month announced it would set up a prefectural-level city, Sansha in the Paracels, to administer over 200 islets, sandbanks and reefs in the three main island groups of the South China Sea.
Last Sunday, China said it would station troops at Sansha. Beijing's announcement that it would establish a garrison came just days after ASEAN called on all parties to resolve any conflicts in the South China Sea peacefully.
ASEAN's statement of principles was a compromise after divisions left the group without a communique for the first time in its 45-year history at the end of a foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month.
Although the Sansha-administered zone covers a total of only 13 square kilometres of island land territory, it encompasses 2 million square kilometres of surrounding waters, according to Xinhua.
Presumably, the 2 million square kilometres of water is the full extent of Beijing's South China Sea claim and includes territorial sea areas out to a distance of 22 kilometres from land features, and Exclusive Economic Zones out to 370km, as well as the underlying seabed on the continental shelves.
This would give China authority over all the fisheries, energy resources and minerals in this maritime domain.
China says that all its recent actions are in response to moves by rival claimants, that its fishing boats are frequently harassed or seized, that Vietnam had ''illegally'' extended its administration over the Spratlys and Paracels and launched fighter patrols over the former, and that south-east Asian countries have been ''stealing'' oil and gas in the South China Sea belonging to China since the 1970s.
After a big build-up in its military power in recent years, China is now embarking on a muscular phase of asserting its South China Sea claims.
''Big-fleet fishing'' by China is likely to become a key part of its extended presence in the South China Sea. But He Jianbin, chief of the state-run Baosha Fishing Corp, based on Hainan Island, wants to go further. He has urged the Chinese government to turn fishermen into militiamen to serve as a spearhead to advance China's claims.
''If we put 5000 Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea, there will be 100,000 fishermen,'' he said in the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party, on June 28. ''And if we make all of them militiamen, give them weapons, we will have a military force stronger than all the combined forces of all the countries in the South China Sea.''
This is gunboat diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.
What the South China Sea needs is a cooling-off period in which rival claimants step back from confrontation and consider how to manage and resolve their disputes peacefully, based on international law.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore.