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Tensions are ratcheting up in the South China Sea after recent confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese ships. Today, China said it would not respond with force, but it also warned other countries to stay out of the escalating dispute.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing, that warning was aimed squarely at the U.S.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

LOUISA LIM: For the past two weekends, anti-Chinese protesters have demonstrated in Vietnam. These were the biggest such protests in four years in the tightly controlled communist country. Anti-Chinese anger is growing, following two occasions in recent weeks when Hanoi accused Chinese ships of cutting cables belonging to Vietnamese oil survey ships. China claims almost all the South China Sea. It's accusing Vietnam of violating its sovereignty. Bilateral ties are in crisis.

Here's Vietnam expert David Koh from Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Dr. DAVID KOH (Senior Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies): This is the most serious ever in terms of their bilateral relations since in 1991 when the two countries agreed to put past issues aside and start to build good relations.

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LIM: Chinese news reports from Vietnam's response to the situation: nine hours of live-fire exercises off its coast. For its part, China is playing down Vietnam's drills.

But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei insists Vietnam is to blame for tensions.

Mr. HONG LEI (Spokesman, Foreign Ministry, China): (Through Translator) Some country took unilateral actions to impair China's sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, released groundless and irresponsible remarks.

LIM: At the bottom of all this is mineral wealth. The disputed area is thought to hold large deposits of oil and gas. Now, Vietnam has asked for international help over the dispute, something China firmly opposes. Chinese officials were outraged last year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered to help mediate talks about the South China Sea.

Now, some Chinese academics, like Ji Qiufeng from Nanjing University, accuse the U.S. of using Vietnam for its own purposes.

Professor JI QIUFENG (School of Foreign Relations, Nanjing University): (Through Translator) This is the medium to long-term strategy of the U.S. The U.S. wants to cause trouble in China's neighborhood without showing its own face by letting China's neighbors cause trouble.

LIM: As to what stance China should take, Ji Qiufeng is uncompromising.

Prof. QIUFENG: (Through Translator) We will never give in regarding sovereignty. No matter how long it takes. We will never yield.

LIM: So how bad could it get? China says it won't use force to solve the problem. But all the action is happening at sea between unofficial proxies like survey ships and fishing vessels. Under such circumstances, matters can spiral out of control very fast indeed.

David Koh says skirmishes on the high seas could well happen.

Dr. KOH: We're not talking about invasions and full-fledged naval war. We are talking about confrontations between maybe small group of ships, you know, will shoot and fight each other.

LIM: And the dispute is widening. The Philippines, too, is accusing China of acting aggressively in the disputed Spratly Islands. It's also requesting U.S. help. Taiwan is also turning up the heat, insisting it will send patrol boats to the Spratly Islands, which it also claims. With the diplomatic temperature rising ever higher, a long, hot summer of confrontation could be ahead.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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