A rhetorical conflict has roiled the waves of the South China Sea, the strategic resource-rich region bordered, and in part claimed in various parts, by six Southeast Asian states.

But while Beijing is shoving its political agenda into the disputed waters, the United States correctly fears being caught in the diplomatic crossfire as claims and counterclaims by regional states particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, threaten to spill over into scattered maritime incidents. Seen from a front row seat in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s great commercial port city on the northern edge of the South China Sea, the region resembles a great maritime basin through which thread the major sea lanes of communication to Taiwan, the Koreas, Japan and Russia.

Yet the sea equally boasts mineral and possibly petroleum resources. The widely scattered Spratly and Paracel Islands, moreover, some of which are garrisoned, are variously claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, as well as Taiwan. Sovereignty claims by an assertive China have rattled nerves and have caused Vietnam to stage live fire naval drills to ward off the Chinese encroachments.

The South China Sea disputes increase the risk for a serious maritime incident. Vietnam has played an obvious game of sabre-rattling toward China; much of this has to do with the Indochinese nation’s historic rifts with Beijing as much as with Hanoi’s own domestic political scene. Vietnam has been prospecting for petroleum in offshore waters. As Taipei’s authoritative China Post editorialized, “The Vietnamese wish to draw the United States into any possible fray with Beijing.”

The Philippines are most exposed to Beijing’s maritime muscle flexing. As Manila’s outdated navy and military is no match for China, Manila looks to the United States as its ultimate protector. Significantly the U.S. is treaty bound to protect the Philippines under a 1951 accord. Thus Washington has wisely tried to turn down the heat as to avoid any miscalculation or flash point that could inadvertently involve already stretched American military forces. Taiwan controls the Pratas Islands and garrisons Taiping Isle in the Spratlys.

In a fit of bluster Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tangkai warned that American support of regional partners in the region “can only make things worse,” and warned Washington “I believe some countries are playing with fire and I hope that the U.S. won’t be burned by this fire.”

So why has the South China Sea issue suddenly re-emerged? Over the past few years, international law to the contrary, Beijing’s rulers have asserted that the entire 1,678,312 square kilometer South China Sea falls under “Chinese sovereignty.” Without taking sides on specific sovereignty claims, the U.S. asserts these vital sea lanes pass through international waters.

U.S. State Department official Kurt Campbell recently affirmed “We want tensions to subside. We have a strong interest in the maintenance of peace and stability.”

Yet the Beijing leadership is facing some significant milestones. The 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China on July 1 and the countdown to the Autumn 2012 Party Congress in Beijing have provided platforms for ramped up nationalist sentiments.

Pressing patriotic themes such as China’s rightful role in the world offers a clear political payoff for factions political jockeying among the assertive security establishment as well as the CCP’s vocal left wing. Beijing’s heated rhetoric combined with China’s surge in naval power allows for geopolitical hubris in viewing the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake.” Conversely Washington stresses freedom of navigation.

Singapore has chastised China by saying that as a major trading nation, “Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes including those in the South China Sea.”

The ASEAN group offers the best collective defense for regional states as to defuse this percolating political problem; the 10 member organization is on record as favoring regional solutions. ASEAN’s political clout offers smaller states a multilateral diplomatic response to China and can equally call upon powers such as the U.S.

Given that the Obama administration is perceived to be politically unsteady in East Asia, China is probing for weak resolve among regional states. Should Beijing sense a power vacuum, be assured it will attempt to fill it.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Transatlantic Divide: The USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010).

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