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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.

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Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said that Indonesia, the current chair of ASEAN, wanted to firm up the code of conduct by year-end on an issue that posed a “real security threat” to the region. He admitted that further delays would be a sign of failure. “Ten years with a lack of [implementing] guidelines is a bit much,” he told a security conference in Malaysia.

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Most experts say that the complexity of the dispute, which involves six countries (China, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia), scores of uninhabited islands and untapped hydrocarbons, resists any quick solution. Instead, it is likely to linger as a potential flashpoint, while countries continue probing the seabed to find out how much oil and gas could be recoverable. Estimates of their size and value vary widely.

On Sunday, Vietnam said that a Chinese patrol boat had deliberately cut the undersea cable of a Petrovietnam ship operating 120 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast. Both countries claim that these waters lie inside their designated exclusive zones.

Dang Dinh Quy, the president of Vietnam’s diplomatic academy in Hanoi, says China has interfered with previous survey ships but that Vietnam took a quieter approach. He credits the US declaration of its strategic interest in the South China for Vietnam’s public assertiveness. “It’s made the position of the US clearer … and made everything more transparent,” he says.

Is it more about the US-China rivalry?

Not everyone welcomes the US intervention in the South China Sea. Hashim Djalal, a former Indonesian envoy on maritime diplomacy, who has chaired informal talks with representatives from China and other island claimants, is leery of a superpower rivalry in ASEAN. “America is looking at it as a China threat. That’s confrontational,” he says.

US officials have stressed their neutrality in territorial claims in the South China Sea. But analysts say it is hard to disentangle the tensions over island sovereignty from US-China military rivalry. Last year’s policy speech in Vietnam by Ms. Clinton came just months after a confrontation between Chinese patrol boats and a US naval surveillance ship operating near a Chinese submarine base on its southernmost island, Hainan. China said the US ship was spying inside its exclusive zone.

In the past, the Philippines and Vietnam have carried out joint oil exploration with Chinese ships in the vicinity of disputed islands. But these joint missions haven’t led to any agreement on how to tap oil and gas reserves since there is no consensus on how to proceed. “For China, there’s no reason to move to joint development [of oil fields]. It can afford to play a long game,” says Euan Graham, an expert of maritime security at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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