Barely weeks after US defence secretary Leon Panetta's flag-waving visit to the region, the long-running South China Sea dispute is making waves. Following a stand-off with US ally, the Philippines, China has dispatched "combat-ready" surveillance vessels to the area and Manila raised the possibility of US spy planes overflying the contested waters to watch Chinese moves. This flurry of activities seems designed to extend respective physical control and change the reality on the ground. Possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law.
The contest over the South China Sea islands surfaced as soon as the Vietnam War ended. Hanoi asserted its claim to the Paracel island, which erstwhile ally China had grabbed from the Thieu regime in the waning days of the war. The conflict since has slowly expanded, with claims from coastal neighbours like Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. China and Vietnam have taken control of islands, reefs and shoals, setting up military installations and observation posts.
China has drawn nine dash lines on the map covering most of the South China Sea as China's historic territory. Other countries have also projected lines demarcating territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), basing their claims on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
At stake in the burgeoning conflict are the rich energy and marine resources contained in the waters and the seabed.
The tensions led to a recent stand-off between China and the Philippines over fishing in Scarborough shoal - which falls within the Philippines' 200-mile economic exclusion zone. The tension was defused when the Philippines vessels, far outnumbered by the Chinese, were withdrawn. But since the April stand-off, a series of measures taken by both sides has steadily raised the temperature.
The May visit of US general Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, to the Philippines was followed by the country's president Benigno Aquino meeting with US president Barack Obama to secure strong US support. China on its part has deployed its first deep-water drilling rig near the disputed islands and its state-run oil company CNOOC invited foreign bids for exploring in blocks clearly within Vietnam's EEZ. In early June, Beijing followed up by announcing the creation of a military district covering the entire South China Sea and dispatched four "combat-ready" marine surveillance ships to "enforce law and order" in the territory it claims.
For the Philippines, with its rust bucket navy, the main defence has involved winning American support. Manila announced plan to host a US ground-based radar installation and to welcome the US back to its former naval and air bases. These moves were followed up this week with President Aquino revealing that the US may be invited to fly P3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft over what the Philippines now calls the West Philippine Sea. Basing those aircraft in the Philippines would be a logical next step. Not surprisingly, China has denounced Manila for stirring up the South China Sea issue as part of "its plots".
Since 2008 when the financial crisis convinced China of its supremacy, Beijing has been aggressively asserting its rights to what it claims as its "historic waters". Both in terms of its deep-sea drilling technology and its capacity to enforce its claims on the South China Sea, China has never been stronger. The appearance of the US as an active player seems to have added urgency to Chinese moves to make its claims an on-the-ground reality. It had earlier scared off a western company from drilling in Vietnamese water. The Chinese have repeatedly disrupted Vietnamese oil explorations by cutting seismic research cables. Now, by deploying its own drilling rig in waters claimed by Vietnam and by providing patrols, Beijing wants to impress upon foreign companies that they can safely tap new energy resources.
The Philippines' attempts to use the threat of US surveillance as a scarecrow are unlikely to impress China. It had long contested US rights of spying near its coast and has been involved in several air and naval incidents with the US navy. The shadow-boxing might at best persuade American oil giants to stay away. For Beijing, apart from reinforcing its claims to the South China Sea, the rising tension with its neighbours may actually help to burnish the party's nationalist credentials in the run-up to its leadership succession.