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Why the South China Sea is turning more turbulent

A US-China military rivalry may be behind China's recent aggressiveness in the South China Sea. On Sunday, Vietnam claims China cut the underwater cables of one of its survey ships.

By Correspondent / June 3, 2011

Do Van Hau, of state oil and gas group Petrovietnam, speaks during a news conference in Hanoi May 29. Vietnam accused China on Sunday of increasing regional tensions and said its navy would do everything necessary to protect its territorial integrity after Chinese patrol boats "interfered with" a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship in the South China Sea.



Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Nearly a year after the US stepped into a simmering dispute between China and smaller countries in the region over potentially oil-rich islands in the South China Sea, tensions are rising again.

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Since March, both Vietnam and the Philippines have accused Chinese forces of aggressive acts in disputed areas. Military experts say China’s sustained military buildup enables it to project more naval power in an oceanic region where the US Navy has long held sway. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was due to meet Friday with his Chinese counterpart at a security summit in Singapore. “We are not trying to hold China down,” he told reporters Thursday.

Prior to the recent tension, however, analysts say China had begun to dial down its behavior and renew diplomatic efforts to win over its neighbors. The Chinese charm offensive began soon after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a regional security forum in Vietnam last July to stake out the US strategic interest in the South China Sea and offer to mediate peace talks.

While this offer hasn’t been taken up, the US intervention prompted Beijing to “recalibrate” its stance, says Susan Shirk, a former US diplomat and China expert who runs the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California in San Diego. As a rising military power, China wants to avoid a pro-US tilt in the region. “This recalibration is about trying to get back to a more pragmatic and cooperative approach that China has, by and large, pursued since the 1990s,” she says.

A regional flashpoint

But regional governments have made scant progress on resolving overlapping claims on two island chains. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a broad code of conduct with China in 2002 as a way to calm tensions. But subsequent talks to agree on the rules have broken down amid criticism that ASEAN is too divided to act. Asian diplomats say China has tried to pick off weaker countries and head off a firm joint position on the South China Sea. Last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said “internationalizing” the issue would only make it harder to solve.


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