Chinese officials have repeatedly expressed their commitment to resolving tensions in the area through diplomatic channels. China recently removed two ships from the area to mitigate the conflict, stressing that it was deescalating the situation.
Philippine leaders said Monday that they would bring up the issue when they met with U.S. officials next week. The ruling Chinese Communist Party strikes a tougher note when U.S. involvement in the disputes is concerned: After the U.S. launched into two weeks of annual military drills with the Philippines last week, one commentary argued it was a clear provocation.
“Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force,” argued the recent commentary in the Legal Daily, a mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army.
The Pentagon maintains that the drills are not related to the territorial dispute.
The Scarborough Islands dispute began when China blocked a Filipino warship from arresting Chinese fishermen in the area, a group of islands and reefs about 140 miles from the Philippines shoreline. Manila requested to take the issue to international court last week. Beijing refused, maintaining that the area is an indisputable part of Chinese territory.
On Friday, Chinese hackers defaced the University of the Philippines’ official website in protest, according to the state-run China Daily. The hackers posted a map to the website with a caption reading, "We come from China! Huangyan Island is Ours.” Huangyan Island is the shoal’s Chinese name.
The South China Sea has been at the center of long-running territorial disputes involving China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. The sea is vital for the fishing industries of nearby countries. Some speculate that it could also contain vast oil and natural gas reserves, but surveys have yet to show any large-scale deposits.
Official Chinese maps use a U-shaped dotted line to demarcate most of the 1.4-million square-mile sea as China’s own. Within the last year, China has sent fishing boats, military patrols and even sightseeing tours to disputed areas of the sea, eliciting official protests from Vietnam and its neighbors.
According to a report released on Monday by an influential think tank, many territorial conflicts in the area are motivated by jockeying among Chinese agencies rather than high-level strategic maneuvering.
The report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said that at least 11 state-controlled ministries -- and beneath them, five law enforcement agencies -- share management of the South China Sea.
“The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies have stoked tensions in the South China Sea, many of which use this issue to try to increase their power and budget,” said the report, called “Stirring Up the South China Sea."
“Ultimately, the ability to manage relations in the South China Sea and resolve disputes will present a major test of China’s peaceful rise,” it said.
-- Jonathan Kaiman
Photo: Protesters hold a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati city, east of Manila, to protest the standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea on Friday. Credit: Bullit Marquez / Associated Press