exploration bids. China recently declared Sansha City in the Paracel islands --
which Vietnam lays claim to -- as its newest municipality.
The Philippines, which lacks the air or naval power to control its own EEZ, has clashed with China over Scarborough Shoal, a rock formation just 140 nautical miles from the Philippines' main island of Luzon. It is 750 nautical miles from mainland China, but that hasn't stopped Chinese fishermen excavating live coral and harvesting endangered species such as giant clams without permission from the Philippines.
Speaking at the U.S. Naval Institute in San Diego on Jan. 31, Capt. James Fanell, deputy chief of staff for intelligence and information operations at the U.S. Pacific Fleet, warned of a campaign by the PLA Navy's civil proxy -- China Marine Surveillance -- to control the near seas.
Before 1988, China's presence in the South China Sea was almost zero, he said.
"In 2013, they literally dominate it," he said. "They are taking control of maritime areas that have never before been administered or controlled in the last 5,000 years by any regime called 'China.'"
Throwing its weight around
Maritime confrontations haven't been happening close to the Chinese mainland. Rather, China is negotiating for control of other nations' resources off their coasts, Fanell said.
China has eight military installations on seven reefs in the Spratly Islands, including one just 115 miles off the Philippine Coast, he said.
"China is knowingly, operationally and incrementally seizing maritime rights of its neighbors under the rubric of a maritime history that is not only contested in the international community but has largely been fabricated by Chinese government propaganda bureaus in order to quote-unquote 'educate' the populace about China's 'rich maritime history' -- clearly as a tool to help sustain the (Communist) Party's control," he said.
China's aggression on the high seas is accompanied by diplomatic and trade pressure that is no less unsettling to smaller nations.
China's neighbors can't develop oil and gas fields in disputed areas because of Chinese pressure on multinationals and insurers' reticence to back projects, Blanchard said.
Last year, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to reach agreement on the wording of a joint communique for the first time in 45 years. China doesn't belong to the group but has been attending as an observer in recent years.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said China pressured the meeting's chair, Cambodia, to keep any mention of the South China Sea out of any final statement.
China has used its growing economic clout to advance its agenda.
In September 2010, after Japan detained the captain of a Chinese trawler who was fishing near the Senkakus, Beijing blocked shipments of rare earth minerals -- a vital component of modern electronic products -- to Japan.
"The embargo was viewed by many experts as evidence of Chinese willingness to use economic leverage to have its way in an international dispute," Glaser said.
Soon after its clash with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, China blocked hundreds of containers of Philippine bananas from entering its ports,
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