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South China Sea Once Again Becomes A Dangerous Military Flashpoint


This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that China's territorial claims over the South China Sea are illegal. This is the latest fight between China, its neighbors and the U.S. over who governs which parts of the water. Here's NPR's Emily Feng.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The South China Sea is barely habitable, an expanse of water bounded by, among others, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, dotted with just a handful of tiny outcroppings. So why do these neighbors and the U.S. care so much about the sea? Here's China's view.

WU SHICUN: (Through interpreter) The South China Sea is a protective shield for the entire country's national security.

FENG: Wu Shicun is president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. It's a government research center based on the island province of Hainan, where China keeps a naval base to defend the South China Sea.

WU: (Through interpreter) Without the sea, Hainan would be the frontlines of any military aggression. China also relies on ocean channels for most of its trade. And two-thirds of our oil is shipped through the South China Sea.

FENG: And on top of that, there are immense oil and mineral reserves under the seabed and rich fisheries China depends on for food. That's why Zhu Feng, director of a research institute on the South China Sea at Nanjing University, says he fears military clashes could be next.

ZHU FENG: (Through interpreter) Since the coronavirus epidemic, we've seen an unceasing amount of China bashing in the U.S. I'm afraid the next thing the U.S. will bring up is supporting Taiwan independence.

FENG: Zhu Feng says he expects the US to corral Malaysia or Vietnam into mounting international lawsuits against Chinese claims in the sea, much like the Philippines has already done. The South China Sea is one of the world's busiest commercial waterways. U.S. warships now routinely conduct what the U.S. calls freedom-of-navigation operations there. China, on its part, has spent years building military fortifications on artificially enlarged islands. China says its military activity is out of self-defense. Here's Wu Shicun again.

WU: (Through interpreter) Without a show of force, how can China be considered a superpower? As the rightful owner of the South China Sea, we need to have a show of power.

FENG: The danger is with both the U.S. and China more willing to engage in displays of strength, military - rather than just diplomatic - conflict could lie ahead. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.