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Southeast Asia, explained

Philippines china spratlys 2012 03 08Enlarge
A Chinese paramilitary officer stands beneath a portrait of the late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong as military talks between China and the US open in Beijing on December 7, 2011. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

China's state-run media threatens "battles" and "punishment" against U.S.-backed "minnows" such as the Philippines who want to drill for oil in China's oceanic backyard, the South China Sea.

How does the U.S. military respond?

By training Philippine forces to seize an oil rig from enemy forces. In the South China Sea.

Upcoming U.S.-Philippines naval war games along an oil-rich South China Sea island chain (the Spratlys) will "include a mock exercise involving the retaking by troops of an oil rig seized by terrorists," according to an Associated Press report.

Could this be the spark that sets off conflict in the South China Sea?

Perhaps, according to the aforementioned op-ed in China's government-supervised Global Times. (No, state-run media isn't a perfect window into the minds of Chinese leadership, but it's a window nonetheless.)

The writer -- Long Tao, analyst with the China Energy Fund Committee and huge fan of animal metaphors -- makes the case for conflict.

"The Philippines, pretending to be weak and innocent, declared that mosquitoes are not wary of the power of the Chinese elephant.

The elephant should stay restrained if mosquitoes behave themselves well.

But it seems like we have a completely different story now given the mosquitoes even invited an eagle to come to their ambitious party. I believe the constant military drill and infringement provide no better excuse for China to strike back."

That was written about five months ago. Maybe his view is no more substantial than the "bomb Iran" bluster we're hearing from the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.

So this is a more measured take, which a former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines offered to the Inquirer in late February:

"If (the Americans) involve themselves in the territorial dispute, there will be problems with China. If that happened, the Chinese government certainly would react."

The war games begin on April 16.

http://www.globalpost.com/globalpost-blogs/southeast-asia/philippines-spratlys

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