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China and the Philippines say they'll try to avoid escalating a confrontation in the South China Sea. The trouble began last month when the Philippines navy tried to arrest Chinese fishermen accused of poaching sharks and giant clams. But there's more at stake here than an illegal catch. The area is thought to be rich in natural resources.
And as NPR's Frank Langford reports, some analysts think China is testing America's support for its allies.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Philippine officials say China still has more than 30 boats in the contested area, but they're hopeful of resolving the dispute peacefully. The area in question is Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call it Huangyan Island. It's a chain of reefs, rocks and small islands about 150 miles from the Philippines, and they are more than 600 miles from the nearest Chinese province, Hainan Island.
GENERAL JUANCHO SABBAN: I'm General Juancho Sabban.
LANGFITT: Lieutenant General Juancho Sabban runs the Philippine armed forces' Western Command. (unintelligible) the confrontation over Scarborough Shoal is part of a broader trend in recent years, more and more Chinese vessels sailing closer and closer to the Philippine mainland.
SABBAN: (Through Translator) Whereas before, we only used to see transport vessels, now, we can only see frigates.
LANGFITT: Sabban says the reason is that the South China Sea contains oil and gas. The Chinese, Philippines, and other Southeast Asian nations are looking to extract as much as they can. Militarily, China is in the strongest position. The country's rapid economic developments allow the government to invest heavily in its navy.
Again General Sabban.
SABBAN: (Through Translator) China has been building up its armed forces. This has caused alarm in the region, especially to the smaller countries.
We are not asking for more. We are defending what we claimed since 1947.
LANGFITT: Shen Dingli is a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. He says China has claimed most of the South China Sea for decades. What neighbors see as muscle flexing, Shen says is just a long overdue enforcement of old claims.
SHEN DINGLI: Now, we are more able to police our traditional, sovereign water. We will be more able to dispel the aggressive behavior of Vietnam and the Philippines.
STEPHANIE KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: China actually feels like a victim, to a certain extent.
LANGFITT: Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt runs the International Crisis Group's office in Beijing.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: And that's a dangerous mentality because when you're a large country like China, that all the neighboring countries around are afraid of, then it sets you up for potential disputes in the future.
LANGFITT: The Crisis Group is an independent organization that tries to prevent and resolve deadly conflict around the globe. Kleine-Ahlbrandt says China's push into the South China Sea is especially complicated, because it involves 11 different government agencies with different agendas.
They include, she says, the Chinese navy which has used disputes to help boost its budget. There are also state-owned oil companies and local governments, which encourage fishing fleets to sail farther to boost their catches.
KLEINE-AHLBRANDT: So it's not a monolithic, unitary China so much as all of these very powerful actors that have an interest in having a more assertive approach to the issue.
LANGFITT: Aaron Friedberg teaches international relations at Princeton. He sees something additional at work: a quiet test of the United States.
AARON FRIEDBERG: I'm afraid that one of the reasons for this more assertive Chinese behavior is that many people in Beijing have come to the conclusion - especially since the onset of the financial crisis - that the United States is in decline.
LANGFITT: Friedberg is the author of "A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia." His U.S allies in Southeast Asia will be watching this dispute and future ones to see if America is committed to the region.
FRIEDBERG: Which gives them some backbone in being able to stand up to Chinese demands, or to the contrary, whether people come to the conclusion that we don't have the resolve, we don't have the resources, and that maybe in the long run we're not going to be around. I think that's very much an open question in the minds of many people in the region right now.
LANGFITT: The U.S. has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she views the Scarborough Shoal standoff with deep concern, and has called Chinese claims excessive. But she's also said the U.S. is not taking sides.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.