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Think of the South China Sea as a chessboard - on one side, the U.S., on the other, China. Each is trying to outmaneuver the other, and China has made the latest move. It has deployed advanced surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai on what's behind the conflict and what's at stake.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: China deployed the missiles to Woody Island, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Woody's part of the Paracel chain which lies more than 200 miles from the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts. Analysts say they can't recall China deploying missiles like this before.
TIM HUXLEY: This looks like a new step in the militarization of the South China Sea.
LANGFITT: Tim Huxley runs the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore. He says the missiles are part of Beijing's long-term strategy.
HUXLEY: There is a general effort to make it more difficult for other countries' naval and air forces to operate freely. There is concern that the Chinese are trying to turn it into a sort of - a Chinese lake.
LANGFITT: The deployment is the latest in a series of moves and countermoves by China and the U.S. China built artificial islands it claimed as sovereign territory. The United States responded by sending surveillance planes and warships nearby. Ni Lexiong says China's answer to that was to deploy the missiles. Ni is a naval expert at the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law.
NI LEXIONG: (Through Interpreter) Although the U.S. says don't militarize, the measures it uses are militaristic. So for China, it needs, to some extent, to react. Since your warships often come, so I deploy missiles, right?
LANGFITT: Ultimately, this is a struggle over a crucial body of water. More than $5 trillion in trade passes annually through the South China Sea which the U.S. has dominated for decades. Now an increasingly powerful China wants a much bigger role. Huang Jing is a professor of U.S.-China relations at National University of Singapore.
HUANG JING: What's at stake for the Chinese leaders or for China is national security and also the national pride and the leadership credibility. What are the stakes for the United States is in addition to the freedom of navigation but also the U.S. credibility and the commitment.
LANGFITT: To its many allies there, including the Philippines and Taiwan. As tensions mount, people wonder where all this is headed. Most analysts think China and the U.S. will proceed with caution, but Yanmei Xie worries about a mistake or a miscalculation. Xie works in Beijing as an analyst for the International Crisis Group.
YANMEI XIE: I don't think as of now, any country in the region has an intention of starting a military conflict, but a lot of wars and conflicts in history started despite intention.
LANGFITT: The U.S. and China are the world's No. 1 and No. 2 economies. If they ever clashed, the consequences could be huge and costly. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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