Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Storms are brewing in the troubled waters of the South China Sea, which has been at the centre of a long and bitter territorial dispute, now that Beijing and Manila are openly staring down at each other with the United States backing the Philippines.
Washington has urged Beijing to refrain from further provocative behaviour after its coast guard tried to stop a Filipino ship from reaching one of the Spratly Islands.
China's attempted blockade, which led to a two-hour standoff with the Filipino ship, is "a provocative and destabilising action," a State Department spokesperson said.
As an ally of the Philippines, the United States has called on China to refrain from further provocative behaviour and allow the Philippines to continue to maintain its presence in the area.
Things are escalating further after the Filipino government on Sunday filed a formal plea with the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, laying out its own claims against Beijing's and the latter's "illegal" and "irrational" 'ox's tongue line' in the sea.
As part of its case, Manila has presented nearly 4,000 pages of evidence and more than 40 maps to back its claims. Filipino claims are based on the guidelines laid down by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), by which China cannot go beyond the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and interfere in Manila's legitimate rights.
Although a party to the convention, Beijing has clearly no intention of respecting its provisions, and is trying to up the ante. In fact, Manila's request for UN arbitration has sparked a vitriolic editorial in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, which accuses the Philippines of violating "the international law and the historical truth as well as [acting] against morality and basic rules of international relations".
In lieu of international arbitration, the Chinese government wants to settle the issue through bilateral negotiations, given its position of strength and dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.
Recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands (Nansha in Chinese) and adjacent waters.
Increasingly, Chinese officials are making statements that highlight China's growing imperial outreach in the Pacific and more generally in world affairs.
For example, during his visit to France to mark 50 years of Sin-French diplomatic relations, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke in the French capital, comparing China to an "awakened lion," a metaphor seen by analysts as a sign for more "aggressive" foreign policy.
In the East China Sea, China is also at loggerheads with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal.
In the South China Sea Beijing claims sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Beijing's hegemony is strategic in nature with regards to trade as well as oil and natural gas seabed development, this in a region crossed by two thirds of the world's maritime trade.
The resource-rich islands are almost uninhabited, but they are thought to contain large reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as other raw materials.
India, Australia and the United States are also involved in the dispute to varying degrees, with crosscutting interests and alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, one of the world's main geopolitical hotspots.