The Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam all claim ownership of some islands [in the South China Sea]. China's official map stakes a claim to almost all the 1.2 million-square-mile sea, including territory hundreds of miles from its mainland shore.
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A clash between East and West is perhaps unavoidable, given that the United States says it will protect freedom of navigation and commerce for all Asian nations in what is one of the world's busiest shipping routes, some experts say.
"China has boxed itself in," says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.
She says China has so convinced its public of their country's claims that significant policy shifts will be tough. In "Stirring up the South China Sea," a report issued this week, the group notes a dramatic increase in hostile incidents between maritime forces in recent years.
Beijing moderated its stance in 2011 after tensions led its neighbors to seek closer military ties with the U.S. But "the conflicting mandates and lack of coordination" among Chinese government agencies running maritime policy continue to stoke tensions, the report says.
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Some foreign policy experts say only a strengthened U.S. naval presence will prevent China from taking over.And while the U.S. is conducting joint military exercises with the Philippines and South Korea, the article reports that China is conducting joint exercises with Russia in the Yellow Sea.
The South China Sea will be "the strategic bellwether for determining the future of U.S. leadership in the Asia-Pacific region," wrote Patrick Cronin and Robert Kaplan in a report by the Center for a New American Security.
Also, the Chinese military has announced that it is ready to protect Chinese interests in the South China Sea:
The armed forces have vowed to "fulfill their duty" to safeguard China's territory in the South China Sea, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on Thursday.Notably, both of the stories cited above also mention possible intentions by China to colonize various islands in the area in order to strengthen its territorial claims.
"China's military forces will collaborate closely with related governing bodies, including fishery administration and maritime law enforcement, to jointly ensure the country's maritime rights and interests," Geng Yansheng said in Beijing.
This was the first official remark from the armed forces following a standoff with a Philippine warship in waters off China's Huangyan Island on April 10.
Analysts said the comments were also in response to growing domestic demand to ensure sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Earlier, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said that any military action will be based on the needs of diplomacy.
Media reports said that China has sent a nuclear-powered submarine to the South China Sea, but the spokesman did not confirm or deny the accuracy of the reports.
Unlike the current U.S. administration, China understands the importance of energy to its continued economic growth and security. However, that may be a large part of what is underlying the current dispute over the South China Sea according to this Chicago Tribune article:
A Philippine exploration firm has found more-than-expected natural gas in a disputed area of the South China Sea, a discovery likely to inflame territorial tensions with China.
Philex Petroleum Corp said in a disclosure to the stock exchange on Tuesday that its unit, Forum Energy Plc, "is expected to show an improvement in the resources previously known" in the Sampaguita gas discovery in the Reed Bank.
The area is claimed by both nations and last year Chinese navy vessels tried to ram one of Forum Energy's survey ships there, almost halting its research work.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea, and these nations are worried about what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in staking claims over the sea's islands, reefs and shoals.
The territorial disputes are pushing the Philippines to seek closer cooperation with the United States, which has drawn Chinese condemnation.
A 2006 study quoted by Forum Energy said the Sampaguita field had a potential of up to 20 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or more than five times initial estimates.
Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras said the findings could support plans to build a multi-million dollar pipeline from the area to Manila.