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Complex web of interests drives US bid for calm on South China Sea

The US has increasingly urged China, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines to keep calm in a region where maritime clashes have become a nearly daily threat since April.

By Correspondent / September 24, 2012

Japan Coast Guard vessels sail along with Chinese surveillance ship Haijian No. 66 (r.) near disputed islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, seen in background, in the East China Sea, on Monday, Sept. 24.

Kyodo News/AP

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Taipei, Taiwan

The United States is urging Asian leaders to cool increasingly heated territory disputes in the Asia Pacific – with good reason, say analysts. 

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The US has intense interest in Asian leaders working things out peacefully. Competing claims to islets or swaths of ocean could disrupt trade – or worse, cut off lanes used by American commercial shippers, as well as the US Navy

Senior American officials have visited Asia twice this month alone, to the chagrin of China, urging calm in a region where maritime clashes have become a nearly daily threat since April.

“The United States will try to keep everyone in check, sending the message that ‘this is the line you don’t want to cross,' ” says Alex Chiang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “The United States doesn’t want to see China become more powerful and more influential in the region.”

Vessels from Japan, China, and Taiwan have squared off this month over eight uninhabited islets 137 miles from Taipei but controlled by Tokyo. The dispute has driven tens of thousands of Chinese to join anti-Japan demonstrations.

China and Japan also dispute an undersea oil field east of Shanghai, while Japan claims the Dokdo islets that are controlled by South Korea.

Beijing also claims the 1.4 million square-mile South China Sea – rich in fisheries as well as undersea oil and gas. In April it entered a tense standoff with the Philippines over rights to part of the ocean. Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim all or part of the South China Sea as well.

Then there is the matter of the US being obligated by security pacts or acts of Congress to help defend Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines – all located off the east coast of rising military power and US cold-war rival China. But today the US also needs China, a low-cost manufacturing base and major market for US exports. An open conflict among disputants could throw US trade, shipping, and naval exercises out of whack.

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