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PRC presses South China Sea claims

KAOHSIUNG -- A rhetorical conflict has roiled the waves of the South China Sea, the strategic resource-rich region bordered, and in part claimed in various parts, by six South East Asian states. But while Beijing is shoving its political agenda into the disputed waters, the United States correctly fears being caught in the diplomatic crossfire as claims and counterclaims by regional states, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, threaten to spill over into scattered maritime incidents.

Seen from a front row seat in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's great commercial port city near the northern edge of the South China Sea, the region resembles a great maritime basin through which thread the major sea lanes of communication to Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Russia.

Yet the Sea equally boasts mineral and possibly petroleum resources. The widely scattered Spratly and Paracel Islands moreover, some of which are garrisoned, are variously claimed by mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, as well as the Republic of China on Taiwan. Sovereignty claims by an assertive People's Republic of China have rattled nerves and have caused Vietnam to stage live fire naval drills to ward off the Chinese encroachments.

The South China Sea poses the risk and potential for a serious maritime incident waiting to happen.

Vietnam has played an obvious game of saber-rattling towards China; much of this has to do with the Indochinese nation's historic rifts with Beijing as much as with Hanoi's own domestic political scene. Vietnam has been prospecting for petroleum in the offshore waters. As Taipei's authoritative The China Post editorialized, “The Vietnamese wish to draw the United States into any possible fray with Beijing.”

The Philippines are most exposed to Beijing's maritime muscle flexing, and Manila's outdated navy and military is no match for China; thus the Manila government looks to the U.S. as its ultimate protector.

Significantly, the U.S. is treaty-bound to protect the Philippines under a 1951 accord. Thus Washington has wisely tried to turn down the heat as to avoid any miscalculation or flashpoint which could inadvertently involve already stretched American military forces.

The Republic of China on Taiwan controls the Pratas Islands and garrisons Taiping Isle in the Spratlys.

In a fit of bluster, PRC Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tangkai warned that American support of regional partners in the region “can only make things worse,” and warned Washington, “I believe some countries are playing with fire and I hope that the U.S. won't be burned by this fire.”

So why has the South China Sea issue suddenly re-emerged?

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