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U.S.-China Relationship Over South China Sea Gets Heated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Tension between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea is increasing. This is a body of water that touches China but also several U.S. allies. And this week, the U.S. vowed to defend the Philippines in the event of an attack. NPR's Julie McCarthy has more.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: This week marks the fifth anniversary of an international legal ruling loved and loathed in equal measure. The judgment rejected China's claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, which brought the case to The Hague, celebrated the five-year mark. And in the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the occasion to say that if its longtime ally, the Philippines, were attacked, the U.S. would come to its aid. Security analyst Gregory Poling says the statement was intended to reassure the Philippines and to deter China.

GREGORY POLING: You want China to understand very, very clearly what would happen if it did use force against the Philippines. So while, yes, the rhetoric can be alarming, it makes very clear to China that there is a third rail here it must not touch.

MCCARTHY: The Chinese reacted very differently to the anniversary of the South China Sea ruling. China's foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, this week mocked the judgment as nothing more than a piece of waste paper. Zhao called it political farce by the United States to smear and suppress China. Regional security expert Alexander Neill says the spokesman's rhetoric smacks of a new current in Chinese diplomacy dubbed wolf warrior.

ALEXANDER NEILL: It's really about being discordant, more strident and more assertive.

MCCARTHY: Neill says it has popular appeal and demonstrates that China has no intention to accommodate the international rules-based order.

NEILL: And what this means is this - Chinese diplomats are deciding that it's their way or the highway. And this international rules-based system is a moribund relic of the Cold War. And China is saying, we're not having it anymore. And we're going to have our own set of rules and our own order.

MCCARTHY: Critics say that new order was evident this spring in Philippine territorial waters, where hundreds of Chinese boats anchored at a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands. The flotilla was reminiscent of the prelude to earlier takeovers by Beijing of Philippine shoals. Analyst Gregory Poling says the main driver of tension in the South China Sea is Beijing's bullying of its smaller neighbors who helped draft the very law of the sea China is now defying.

POLING: The Philippines and Vietnam and Malaysia aren't standing up for themselves because they're some sort of U.S. plot. They're standing up for themselves because they helped write those rules, too. And they don't like the idea that China gets to now take over their fishing grounds and their oil and gas fields just because it wants to.

MCCARTHY: China argues the United States is the one destabilizing the South China Sea by sailing warships through what it considers Chinese waters. The U.S. says the waters are international and it's there to keep the sea lanes open. France and Britain say they are sending warships as well. Alexander Neill says all of these operations bring risk.

NEILL: My fear is that there's an ever-increasing possibility of another kind of incident with the saturation, the militarization of the South China Sea. This is dangerous stuff.

MCCARTHY: The ruling five years ago has had virtually no effect on China's behavior. Again, Gregory Poling.

POLING: The U.S. and others recognize how desperate the situation has become. They don't have another five years to wait.

MCCARTHY: In another five years, he says, the South China Sea will be a Chinese lake. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.