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China is flexing its muscles these days. It's declared a sprawling air defense zone that covers disputed islands that Japan controls and China has sent its lone aircraft carrier to the South China Sea where Beijing has territorial feuds with other neighbors, including the Philippines. NPR's Frank Langfitt was in the Philippines this week and reports on how China's recent moves are playing with this key American ally.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Beijing announced that planes flying through its newly-created defense zone would have to submit to Chinese control, it struck a chord in Manila.

JAY BATONGBACAL: It only tends to confirm and reinforce the fears and worries of many people in the region.

LANGFITT: Jay Batongbacal is a law professor at the University of the Philippines. He's spent a decade and a half studying territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

BATONGBACAL: It's only giving China a worse image. Right now, I think they are seen more as a bully because of the actions that they've taken.

LANGFITT: Among those actions: last year's takeover of a disputed shoal in the South China Sea that had been under Philippine control. It started when Philippine authorities tried to arrest Chinese they accused of illegally fishing inside the shoal - really a shallow, triangle-shaped reef with a small opening at one end. China sent marine surveillance ships to block the Philippine boats.

BATONGBACAL: So one of the measures that they've put in place was to string a line across the mouth of that entrance, because if any vessel tries to cross that line it will get entangled in the propellers. So that effectively also blockaded the reef itself.

LANGFITT: Allowing China - with a navy that dwarfs that of the Philippines - to take control of Scarborough Shoal without firing a shot. The shoal, rich in fish, is about 140 miles from the Philippine mainland and more than 500 miles from China. At high tide, only five rocks stick up out of the water.

But Philippine officials worry China might one day declare them Chinese territory.

BATONGBACAL: That's a huge area that's going to be turned into like a - it's going to be like a Chinese enclave, close to Manila. Also, they could then easily convert the entire reef into a - it's like an off-shore harbor, because the reef is a natural protection from the rough seas.

LANGFITT: What do you think the Chinese intentions are in Scarborough Shoal. What do you think their motivation is?

BATONGBACAL: Right now, it's clear that their motivation is vindicate their claim to the Entire South China Sea.

LANGFITT: A huge amount of trade and oil passes through the South China Sea, which China has claimed since at least the 1940s. Back then though it was militarily too weak to do anything about it. Today, China is the world's number two economy and rapidly rising military power.

DINDO MANHIT: I'm Dindo Manhit. I am the president Stratbase. It's a strategic think tank.

LANGFITT: Manhit says China now wants to ensure it has a major say in what happens in the South China Sea.

MANHIT: I think the reality of any nation becoming an economic power, you'd like to spread your influence. As you spread your influence economically, you know that at the end of the day, any economic influence needs to be protected by either strong military or political influence. I think that's where it's coming from.

LANGFITT: Chito Santa Romana spent nearly four decades living in China. Now he works for a Philippine think tank, trying to forge understanding on the South China Sea dispute between the two countries. Santa Romana thinks China's claims there go beyond conventional geo-politics.

CHITO SANTA ROMANA: I would attribute it to what I call the Resurgence of the Middle Kingdom Complex, the China dream that the Chinese talk about. They want to recover the glory that was lost when they were a pre-eminent power.

LANGFITT: The U.S. has dominated East Asia militarily for decades. And the Philippines hopes America will back it up if its dispute with China turns violent. But some here worry Washington's deep and complex ties with Beijing will win out in the end.

Again, Dindo Manhit:

MANHIT: We hope and expect that the U.S. remembers us as the true ally here. Because some people are saying that, in a conflict between China and the Philippines, the U.S. will chose China because of the economic relationship.

LANGFITT: Most people in the Philippines are hoping it never comes to that.

Frank Langfitt, NPR, Shanghai.

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