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Conflicts Over Resources With China's Neighbors Have Deeper Motives


This was a tense week in the South China Sea. China and Vietnam each accused the other of ramming each other's ships as China moved an oil-drilling rig into waters both countries claim. The Chinese say Vietnamese ships rammed theirs 171 times. The Vietnamese say the Chinese ships fired water cannons and six Vietnamese personnel were injured. On the other side of the South China Sea, off the coast of the Philippines, Philippine police arrested 11 Chinese fishermen for allegedly poaching hundreds of endangered turtles. China is demanding their release.

To explain how these events fit together and what they mean for the U.S., we turn to Frank Langfitt, NPR's correspondent in Shanghai. Frank, how much were last week's conflicts over resources, oil and turtles in this case, or is something much bigger going on?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, resources are certainly an issue on the surface, especially with China's neighbors, including Malaysia and Brunei. And on energy China does need more domestic energy. But most analysts out here see this actually as a great power play, part of a great power play. China's staking out territory, and in the long run what it hopes to do is take control of the South China Sea. The oil platform's a pretty good example, in the sense that China sent dozens of ships to protect it, kind of flooding the area. It's an area much closer to Vietnam. Vietnam protests it but the rig is still there, so China seems to be getting its way.

RATH: Is China's ultimate goal to just have total control of the South China Sea or is there even a bigger objective beyond that?

LANGFITT: I think they want a sphere of influence. You know, the United States Navy has dominated South China Sea and the Western Pacific now for decades. But China's a rising power, second largest economy. They've been pouring a lot of money into their navy and they want a role certainly in that area. They'll often point to the 19th century in the United States and the Monroe Doctrine saying, you know, you took control of the Caribbean. In some ways we just want a real role here in the South China Sea.

There's of course a number of big differences. One, is Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, relies on oil coming through the Malacca Strait and up through the South China Sea. And they're bitter enemies, Japan and China. And so if China were to actually have a lot more control over the South China Sea that would make Japan really nervous.

RATH: You know, some of the statements from the U.S. on this situation, it sounds like walking a tightrope, making pains not to take sides in the territorial dispute but still condemning what it calls China's unilateral actions. What's really at stake for the U.S. here?

LANGFITT: They're in a very, very tricky position because they have a very, very strong economic relationship with China. They also have a lot of friends in the region and they have been the guarantor of security in the region. And so they don't want to get into a really big battle with China over this. They certainly don't want conflict and China doesn't want conflict. At the same time, U.S. credibility is, to some degrees, at stake.

If you look at the Philippines, Japan, people are looking at the U.S. and they're concerned in the long run, is the U.S. going to be there for them or are they going to throw in with another big power, China? Because U.S. may see in the long interest to kind of let China take a larger role in the South China Sea.

The other issue is the United States doesn't have the money it had many, many years ago to pour into defense. U.S. is saying it's going to pivot, it's going to rebalance to Asia but a lot of neighbors in the region are watching this closely and they're not entirely convinced.

RATH: Now the statements coming from the Chinese government are pretty clear. They're essentially saying there's nothing to negotiate - not budging. Is there any space left for a diplomatic solution?

LANGFITT: Well, there is space for avoiding conflict. I think that China, the United States and others, they've talked about a code of conduct for the South China Sea. And the idea is if you're going to be jockeying for position, at least do it in a way that you don't end up sinking somebody else's ship.

The big concern, and this is unlikely, is that there would be a clash, a lot of injuries and that you could stumble into war. And that's one of the things that I think would kind of calm people down a bit, as if there was a code of conduct.

RATH: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Arun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.