Recent disputes in the South China Sea have been focused above all on the Nansha Islands, drawing in the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei and going back to the 1960s.
In the 1970s, Vietnam and the Philippines dispatched troops to occupy the islands they claimed sovereignty over.
Then the dispute began to emerge. However, in general, the situation over Nansha Islands was relatively calm at that time and the dispute's international influence was very limited.
But the situation changed in the 1970s. To begin with, the US decided to withdraw troops from South Vietnam, marking a change in the region's balance of power as Vietnam reunified. But the most critical factor was new resources. In 1969, a report by the UN indicated that the coastal sea areas around the Nansha Islands contained rich oil and gas resources. Interest in the region was highlighted by the first global oil crisis of 1973, which helped spark the debate on new maritime laws.
This prompted the nations involved to fiercely defend what they perceived as their maritime rights. The complicated situation and geography of the Nansha Islands made them an especially sensitive point.
The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea stated in 1982 that there could be an exclusive sea zone of 12 miles around islands, 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zones, and 350 nautical miles in continental shelf areas.
These new possibilities prompted the dispatch of more troops and the development of the modern dispute over the Nansha Islands.
If China doesn't act to restrain Vietnam and the Philippines by protecting its rights in the islands, it will have a harder time defending its rights in the future.
Vietnam and the Philippines have stirred up the present situation to achieve several goals: As the oil resources in Nansha Islands are very rich, the two countries have real economic interests at stake.
They want to grasp the initiative in the South China Sea before the Chinese military becomes more powerful. They also want to play the nationalist card to divert the domestic public away from growing wealth gaps and official corruption in their home countries.
Through newspaper articles, they try to shift the grudges of an angry public toward other nations by exaggerating the perceived threat from the outside.
The US also won't stand by idly in the region. Since the start of the 21st century, the US has adjusted its global strategy, transferring its focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and gradually gathering strategic resources in the West Pacific.
Recently, the US economy has picked up following the recession, and it achieved significant victories in its war against terror. That has given the White House the strategic room to move away from tough problems such as the economy and pay more attention to the Asia-Pacific and China.
But with relations across the Taiwan Straits more relaxed than before, and Taiwan and the mainland cooperating economically, the US can't stir up the situation in the Taiwan Straits to put pressure on China. So instead, the US has chosen to use the South China Sea issues to trigger disturbances and restrain China.
On June 4, 2011, Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary, said at the 10th Shangri-la Dialogue held in Singapore, that although the US was reducing military expenditure, it would still station troops in Asia and keep its influence in Asia.
In 2010, the US made high-profile interventions in the issues in the South China Sea and asserted its own national interest. The geopolitical conflicts between the US and China have begun to intensify.
The author is director of the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies. firstname.lastname@example.org