01/13/2014 07:18 pm ET Updated Mar 15, 2014

China Huffs and Puffs Some More, to Uncertain Effect

The latest aggressive Chinese move in the Western Pacific? Decreeing that all fishing vessels must have Chinese permission to operate in the South China Sea, virtually all of which it claims as its sovereign territory to the dismay of the other nations on the South China Sea. This comes on the heels of China's clearly not unrelated claiming of an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including territory held by Japan and South Korea.

There's been plenty of pushback against this month's Chinese fishing decree in the South China Sea, just as there was against November's declaration of the East China Sea air defense zone.

At the end of last week, the US State Department, with our Asia-Pacific pivot underway, condemned the latest Chinese move as "provocative and potentially dangerous."

Beginning with a series of clashes with Vietnam and the Philippines over South China Sea islands, oil and gas drilling territory, and fishing grounds before moving to Beijing's stunningly expansive claim of virtually the entire South China Sea as its own sovereign territory, China has embarked on a series of moves to overawe its much smaller neighbors in the Western Pacific and, with the US still pinned down in its fateful Middle East adventures, create a set of facts on the water that the superior US Navy would have to aggressively overturn in order to avoid being boxed out of the region.

It's a dramatic set of moves, a remarkable turn in China's geostrategic posture. But it comes with a big catch. What does China do if its claims are largely ignored?

For the claims are, for the most part, being rejected.

China's claim of control over fishing in the South China Sea, site of approximately one-tenth of the world's fishing, was met with a chorus of hostility.

Before that, its attempt at imposing an air defense identification zone over most the East China Sea, requiring aircraft to inform the People's Republic in advance of special travel plans and gain permission, fell largely flat.

While US airliners, whose schedules are public anyway, took heed of insurer concerns and, with the permission of the Obama Administration, began informing the PRC of their flights, Japanese airlines refused from the beginning. And South Korean airlines, which first sounded as if they would provide a modicum of cooperation to the Chinese scheme, now refuse to provide the notification.

Of course, military aircraft of all three nations -- the US, Japan, and South Korea -- refused from the beginning to play along with the PRC. Each continues to operate regular military flights in the area and there have been no reports of serious Chinese interference with those flights.

All of which makes China appear to be taking on something of the aspect of a paper tiger, that phrase first used by Chairman Mao in the 1950s to describe American imperialism.

That's one thing when it comes to taking on the world's only superpower, the US, or Japan, which in a number of circumstances could itself be a match for Chinese forces. Indeed, Japanese airborne troops held exercises over the weekend to practice retaking small islands captured by an enemy force which, at this point, could only be that of China

South Korea has a relatively advanced military, too, but is most threatening to China due to its mutual security treaty with the US.

But what about the notably smaller powers on the South China Sea, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan?

Their successful active defiance could pin the paper tiger label to China as a tail to a donkey.

What will China do to foreign fishing vessels that operate without its approval?

China says it will confiscate the catch and fishing equipment of any vessel that proceeds without authorization, as well as levy a 500,000 renminbi ($83,000) fine per vessel.

Fortunately, it hasn't moved to do anything like that yet. But when and if it does, it will be interesting to see who it targets and how it goes about it.

The US has been helping some of the smaller nations by providing new naval patrol craft to match up against the smaller vessels the Chinese like to employ in these sorts of disputes. Japan is helping in the same way. But many of those American- and Japanese-provided vessels are not yet online.

And the US plan to deploy a new type of smaller, high-speed ship, the littoral combat ship -- much bigger than a standard patrol boat but smaller than a frigate or destroyer -- has just begun to unfold.

Eventually, there is to be a squadron American littoral combat ships based in Singapore. But the first such ship just completed its maiden deployment there and only a few have been finished so far.

Which means that likely US naval assets to be brought to bear in this sort of fishing dispute would likely be of the heavy metal variant: guided missile frigates and destroyers, which could quickly up the ante in any confrontation.

That's somewhat alarming, though from another perspective it may be a blessing in disguise, since the Chinese should know that a typical American guided-missile destroyer is far more powerful than all but a few ships yet existing in today's People's Liberation Army Navy, and may be dissuaded accordingly.

Also alarming, perhaps more so, is an odd-seeming report from a "business and strategy news platform" called Prospects, helpfully translated from Mandarin to English by China Daily Mail. It reports a Chinese navy battle plan to seize the main island occupied by Philippine forces in the disputed Spratley island chain with the attack supposedly set for sometime in 2014.

Which is intriguing, though more than a little flakey-sounding.

What makes it especially intriguing is that both the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Department of National Defense refuse to comment on the alleged report.

The swift seizure of a Philippine-held island could force the US to deal with an accomplished fact, a decision always more freighted with risk than fending off an attack.

Of course, it may be smoke and mirrors.

One thing is certain. If China wants to be taken seriously in these increasingly aggressive claims of authority, it is going to have to do something to enforce them. And therein lies the risk of war.

Another risk, specifically for China? These moves, taken collectively, may be spurring the formation, at least on a de facto basis, of a new alliance, an "Asia-Pacific Treaty Organization," with the US, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia among its core constituents, for the purpose of fending off China's increasingly aggressive moves in the Western Pacific.

Is that what China wanted?