This South-China sea saga is really insane. It sparked a really strongly worded letter from our Singaporean ambassador to China.
But that brings up only one point: If China can go soft, why would it go hard?
Going hard suggests a running out of strategy/ tactics. For example, if you have shown yourself to be a person of power and there is a dispute, the logical manner should always be to go soft and engage the other person in a dialogue.
Why would anyone go “hard”? Going “hard” only reveals insecurity and does not command respect. Appearing highly emotional and doing character assassination is even worse. Any evidence of high-handedness will also not make you popular.
And the evidence can and will be used against you for life, since it’s written and made known to the other party.