China insists the South China Sea is its own, but Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, also have claims.
Talks on South China Sea's troubled waters
BEIJING // When the United States and China hold talks in Hawaii today over Asian Pacific security issues, the South China Sea is likely to be top of the agenda.
Recently China has seen its relations with both Vietnam and the Philippines suffer after disputes over sovereignty of a maritime area because of its importance as a shipping lane and potential oil and gas reserves.
Although China insists the South China Sea is its own, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, also have claims. As tensions have escalated, there have been anti-China street protests in Vietnam while the US has this week indicated its willingness to help the Philippines modernise its forces. The current flagship of the Philippine navy is a creaking former US frigate from the Second World War.
The US has also reaffirmed a "commitment to the defence of the Philippines", a reference to a mutual defence treaty the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, insisted Washington would honour.
The Philippine foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, has said China was clearly becoming "more aggressive" in its actions in the disputed area.
China has been accused of placing markers in waters the Philippines claims, while in late May Chinese patrol boats allegedly cut cables belonging to a Vietnamese oil-exploration ship.
A further sign of China's apparent growing regional assertiveness was the row last year with Japan over the East China Sea after a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels near disputed islands. Beijing has also shown its anger at joint US-South Korean naval exercises.
Beijing has warned its South China Sea rivals they are "playing with fire" and has tried to warn off the US from intervening, although Washington has insisted it is in its strategic interests to maintain stability in the area.
Despite the recent sabre-rattling, which has included Philippine forces removing Chinese markers in disputed maritime areas, analysts say military conflict over the South China Sea remains extremely unlikely.
The issue has been "simmering along for a long time", said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong, although China is now perceived as being increasingly bold.
"In recent months certainly there's been an escalation, but in the past year or so Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries certainly see a more assertive China," he said.
He indicated however that blame for escalating tensions should be shared, saying leaders in Hanoi and Manila were keen to fan nationalist sentiment to divert attention from domestic problems.
While continued posturing is probable, there is only a low likelihood of such actions sparking a conflict, he added.
One way of resolving competing claims has been for a non-binding 2002 agreement between China and Asean countries to be upgraded and given legal status. However, there have been few meetings about the agreement in recent years and analysts have warned it risks becoming irrelevant.