On Feb. 6, the Chinese Coast Guard pointed a military-grade laser at BRP Malapascua, a local maritime law enforcement vessel, as it moved near Ayungin Shoal to deliver fuel, food, and water to a handful of troops stationed in a rusty navy transport ship.

It was the first time a Chinese state-owned ship used a laser to harass a Philippine public vessel, a clear escalation of provocative behavior in a disputed area in the South China Sea.

It has directly harassed a public vessel, which never happened in the past. In a way, it was provoking the Philippine Coast Guard to take a drastic action that it would regret later, and give the Chinese an excuse to employ excessive force.

China’s actions have been bordering on something that the Philippines can use as basis to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. There could be potential accidents and miscalculations that could result in confrontation.

In the past, China would only challenge through the marine radio band any approaching Philippine vessel in the disputed waters. Sometimes, China used bull horns. Later, coast guard and militia vessels shadowed Philippine fishing boats and public vessels sailing in the Reed Bank or in the Spratlys.

The laser incident was a step higher than what China normally does to harass the Philippines. It is not only illegal but dangerous, as it could cause blindness among crew members.

When President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited China early last month, he had hoped to smoothen relations, reduce tension and avoid incidents that could lead to confrontation as both countries attempted to resolve the maritime dispute.

He also set up direct communications with President Xi Jinping to prevent tensions from rising.

But it did not turn out that way. The Chinese coast guard and militia presence increased in areas within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and its bullying activities intensified.

It appeared Xi’s assurances to calm down the situation in the South China Sea were for nothing. The Chinese coast guard and militia vessels have ignored Xi’s promise, or Beijing has mastered the art of double talk.

China could not be trusted. It is very difficult to hold Beijing to its words. It only understands its own self-interest.

Some people say the laser incident could be China’s strong reaction to the move to allow the United States additional access to four military facilities near Taiwan and recent agreements with Japan to hold training and drills in the country.

Beijing could be showing its displeasure to Manila’s moves to tighten security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, which are meant to further contain China.

However, regardless of the Philippines’s efforts to broaden and deepen its alliance, China will act according to its own national interests. For China, the South China Sea is non-negotiable.

It will not surrender its illegal claim on almost the entire South China Sea, which forms part of its first island chain, a buffer zone to protect its country from a possible strike.

The first island chain is an attempt to push away the United States and its allies, like Australia, Canada, France, India, Japan, and the United Kingdom from the South China Sea.

China wants full control of the strategic waterway not just for military purposes but for trade as well as. Almost $3 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass in the sealanes every year, including oil supply for Japan and South Korea from the Middle East.

China has learned a lot from the US naval strategy: who controls the sea, controls the world.

The United States has the world’s largest navy. It has 12 carrier battle groups and hundreds of ship-based fighters that could project power way beyond its borders.

China is slowly building up its blue water navy but is still several years behind the United States in terms of military technology.

But it could overwhelm its opponents by its large numbers of conventional fighters, ships, and troops.

It has the numbers but it still lacks the quality of military forces.

There is danger, though, that China’s actions in the South China Sea could force smaller states in the region to embrace with open arms the United States and its allies.

Washington quickly reacted after Beijing’s laser attack. Australia and Japan followed with statements expressing deep concern over China’s actions.

The Philippines cannot really respond strongly against China’s bullying in the South China Sea but it can have diplomatic and political options to counter Beijing’s actions.

It has slowly expanded its security partnerships with the US and other allies, transforming the annual bilateral combined and joint military drills into multilateral exercises with Australia and Japan.

It already has a visiting forces agreement with the US and Australia and will soon have one with Japan, which has transferred military equipment to the local armed forces.

China’s actions in the South China Sea have polarized the region. It has made the region more dangerous as tensions continue to escalate.