South China Sea dispute escalates, US on standby | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 10.05.2012
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South China Sea dispute escalates, US on standby

The waters in the South China Sea are rougher than ever, stirred up by an escalating row over rival claims in the region. China appears more than ready to flex its muscle to wrestle control.

The month-long dispute between China and the Philippines over claims in the South China Sea has risen to a new level of concern, with hints of economic retaliation and even war.

The two are among six nations - together with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam - that have staked claims to waters and island groups in the South China Sea.

The area is home to heavy shipping lanes, rich fishing waters and, perhaps most important, a potential wealth of mineral resources.

Locked in a standoff

Since early April, China and the Philippines have been locked in a standoff at the Scarborough Shoal where they have stationed non-military vessels. Both claim to own the string of small islands in the South China Sea, about 230 kilometers from the Philippines and more than 1,200 kilometers from China.

Members of the Chinese Navy

China says it's prepared to go to war to end the dispute

Beijing has suspended tourist travel to the Philippines and stiffened inspections on the country's fruit. China is the single biggest buyer of Philippine bananas.

Through government-controlled media, China has also warned of military intervention, if the dispute escalates any further.

"No matter how willing we are to discuss the issue, the current Philippine leadership is intent on pressing us into a corner where there is no other option left but the use of arms," the China Daily said in an editorial.

Gerhard Will, a South East Asia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said the Beijing government has hinted at military intervention in the national press in recent weeks but has now used an English-language media channel "to spread the message globally."

Perceived threats

A civic group in the Philippines has called for protests on Friday.

The government has already lodged diplomatic protests, alerting foreign governments over what it views as a Chinese threat to freedom of navigation.

Manilahas also warned that it is prepared to back its territorial claims with military equipment supplied by the United States.

Chart of South China Sea

Six nations claim stakes to the South China Sea

Many experts believe any further escalation of the dispute will inevitably pull in the US.

"There's a lot of talk in Asia right now about the role of the US in this dispute," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, head of the Beijing office of the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Certainly, if it goes any further, it will involve the US."

Kleine-Ahlbrandt added that she didn't see the situation "de-escalating" at the moment. "Both sides are not willing to back down," she told DW.

Expert Will agrees. "The situation is clearly escalating and becoming more difficult," he told DW. "The Philippines have close relations with the United States. And many there now want the US to show its colors."

An aerial view shows Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands

Underneath the waters and islands of the South China Sea are precious mineral resources

US involvement

The Philippine government said Wednesday the US government has pledged to protect it from attacks in the South China Sea.

The two countries recently engaged in joint military exercises.

This week, the US Defense Department also announced a 10-month deployment of a new class of warships to Singapore, in a move almost certain to make China unhappy.

Author: John Blau
Editor: Sarah Berning

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