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Five things you need to know about one of the world's most dangerous places.
China has built up its small military presence in the Spratlys. It angered Vietnam by issuing a unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea, then boarding and seizing Vietnamese fishing boats who did not observe that ban.
Longer-term, China is building up a massive naval base on its southern island of Hainan from which it will be able to project power into the South China Sea. The base will house China's new nuclear-armed submarines, as well as its first aircraft carrier, expected to enter service by 2012, and many other warships.
Perhaps most significantly, China has recently begun to define its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea as a "core interest," say analysts, using new language that puts the sea on par with Beijing's claims over Taiwan and Tibet. Veteran China watcher Willy Lam calls it part of China's "red-line diplomacy."
"These red lines define China's core interests," said Lam at a recent talk in Taipei. "Now, China is increasing its core interests. The latest development is that China also considers the South China Sea as its 'core interest' — it's asking the U.S. and other countries not to interfere with its 'core interests' in the South China Sea. It's drawing red lines around the entire sea."
Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, wrote in an email that Gates' remarks in Singapore were a "surprise."
"Clearly China's decision to include the South China Sea as a 'core interest' is something unnerving," said Minnick.
Southeast Asian nations are also increasingly worried, according to Arthur Ding, a Taiwan expert on military issues who also attended the Singapore conference. He said he's heard rising concerns from southeast Asian officials, especially those from Vietnam and the Philippines, about China's growing "assertiveness."
And he highlighted Chinese general Ma Xiaotian's mention of the South China Sea in a Q&A session in Singapore.
"The South China Sea had become so quiet, or at least not as much of an issue as the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula," said Ding. "So this [Ma's remarks] really surprised me."
4) What are the most plausible conflict scenarios?
One worry is an incident at sea — say, a collision between a U.S. surveillance ship and a People's Liberation Army ship leading to loss of life — that could escalate due to miscalculation and lack of communication. One such incident took place in 2001 between a U.S. spy-plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The U.S. and Chinese militaries established a hotline in 2008, but China often simply refuses to pick up the phone out of pique, according to a recent Defense News report.
But the nations most likely to come to blows in the South China Sea may be China and Vietnam. Hanoi was incensed by Beijing's treatment of its fishing boats last year and lodged a formal protest. It continues to see the Paracels as its territory, illegally occupied by the Chinese. Anti-China nationalism runs strong in Vietnam and is easily inflamed. The two nations' militaries have twice skirmished in the South China Sea, in 1974 and 1988.
China's moves appear to have already started a regional arms race, analysts say. "Some southeast Asian nations are starting to beef up their armed forces to hedge growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea," wrote Ian Storey, fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, in a recent commentary.
Defense News' Minnick said that Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam had "gotten into the submarine game," and that "there are more concerns of an underwater collision than an accidental war" in the South China Sea.
"Many of the countries now deploying submarines are not familiar with underwater rules of right of way," Minnick said. "There are clear demarcations for direction and depth that are not being followed by some of the more inexperienced countries. And then there's Chinese submarines roaming around as well. So it's getting crowded underwater."
Meanwhile, one side effect of China's new claim may be to strengthen the U.S.' budding ties with Vietnam. "The U.S. is moving closer to Vietnam, and better military-to-military relations are expected to improve this year as China rattles the saber more," said Minnick.
5) Are there any efforts to resolve South China Sea disputes?
In 2002 the concerned nations signed a "code of conduct" agreement on the South China Sea. But the deal hasn't yet been fully implemented, largely due to China, analysts say. "China perceives the South China Sea as its territory, so it thinks 'Why do I have to implement the code of conduct?'" said Ding, the Taiwanese expert.
Last year, Vietnam and Malaysia submitted their formal claims to territory in the South China Sea. China immediately protested, rendering the claims invalid, a move that further ratcheted up ill will. The issue has quieted down in recent months, but the underlying territorial disagreements are far from being resolved.
"Somehow, ways must be found to prevent emotive nationalism and militarism from upsetting the uneasy status quo in the South China Sea," wrote the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies' Richardson.