As China's state-controlled media slammed the passage of a U.S. Navy vessel near artificial islands built by Beijing in a disputed zone of the South China Sea this week, analysts said Beijing's reaction is driven by long-term strategic concerns and a need to use nationalism to deflect public anger.
Several newspapers hit out on Wednesday at the transit of the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, 12 nautical miles off man-made islands constructed by China in a controversial reclamation project since last year.
"The Pentagon is obviously provoking China," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, said in an editorial. "We should stay calm. If we feel disgraced and utter some furious words, it will only make the US achieve its goal of irritating us."
Calling the action "a political show" and "harassment," the paper defended China's island-building in disputed waters on the grounds that it has already been completed.
"At present, no country, the U.S. included, is able to obstruct Beijing's island reclamation in the region," it warned, adding: "China is gradually recovering its justified rights in the South China Sea."
Little room for compromise
The state news agency Xinhua said the USS Lassen's voyage was "a dangerous attempt to test China's bottom line" in the maritime region which is subject to several competing territorial claims.
"Washington has obviously ignored the fact that such provocation has serious negative repercussions," the agency said in an opinion article, saying the action would damage trust in bilateral ties.
"China has little room for compromise when it comes to matters regarding its sovereignty, and it will take whatever means at whatever cost to safeguard its sovereign interests," the article warned.
China on Tuesday summoned the U.S. ambassador to Beijing Max Baucus to make "serious representations" of protest at the incident, the agency said.
Vice foreign finister Zhang Yesui said the presence of the USS Lassen in waters off the Zhubi reef without Beijing's permission constituted a "serious provocation."
"This action by the United States threatens China's sovereignty and security interests and endangers the safety of personnel and facilities on the reef, which is a serious provocation," Zhang said.
Zhang said China claims the Nansha, or Spratly, Islands and adjacent waters as its sovereign territory, on the basis that it named and developed them. This assertion is disputed by many historians outside China, as well as by Asian countries with competing claims to the islands, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Public opinion divided?
Taiwan military analyst Chen Kuo-ming said Beijing's island-building rather is aimed at plugging a gap in its regional military capabilities.
"If you take a look at the map, you can see how far it is from the Nansha (Spratly) islands and the Dongsha (Paracels) to the nearest Chinese base in Sanya or Guangzhou," Chen said.
"U.S. Navy ships have Subic Bay in the Philippines, and the Changi naval base in Singapore to rely on, which enables them to put to sea for battle for 10 days straight after they have taken on supplies," he said.
"Add to that the fact that the U.S. has lately developed a pretty good relationship with Vietnam."
He said a Nansha island base would be crucial to China's military capabilities in the South China Sea.
"The Chinese navy doesn't have a supply base, but it needs somewhere to refuel and take in fresh supplies of munitions ... currently this is very difficult, and it has no way to remain at sea for a prolonged period of time," Chen said.
Meanwhile, Chongqing-based political commentator Zhang Qi said public opinion in China is highly divided on the issue.
"On one side you have the extreme nationalists who are anti-American, while on the other side perhaps more netizens are pointing the finger at the Chinese government," Zhang Qi said, without elaborating.
"It looks as if the Chinese Communist Party's nationalism isn't going to wash any more, not like it did a few years ago, when they could switch it on and off at will," he said. "They have shot themselves in the foot there."
Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo agreed.
"The Chinese Communist Party is trying to use nationalism to offset some of the domestic pressure it is under, and to deflect social tensions and win hearts and minds," Zha said.
"You have the angry youth on the Internet criticizing the Chinese government for being too soft, which I think is wrong," he said.
"The best expression of our patriotism in mainland China right now would be to oversee the government, to criticize the government, and to bring about democratic change."
Reported by Ho Shan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.