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U.S. Raises Opposition To China's Moves In South China Sea

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We focus next on one of the world's emerging zones of conflict. It's a place Americans didn't think much about just a few years ago - the South China Sea. China is contending for control of that sea against a number of U.S. friends and allies from the Philippines to Vietnam. The United States does not want any single power to dominate, which is why U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal of plans to fly over tiny reefs or islands claimed by China. It's also the backdrop of Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to China tomorrow. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering this story. He's in Beijing. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What makes this place, the South China Sea, such a flashpoint?

KUHN: Well, you've got some of the world's busiest sea lanes there. The South China Sea is rich in fish and oil and other resources. And China claims most of those waters as its territory, but as you mentioned, you've got its neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, claiming other bits. Also in the South China Sea, you have these groups of islands, which are really submerged reefs. And China and the other nations around the South China Sea are reclaiming that land. They're dredging up sand, piling it on top of the islands and then building buildings and even airstrips on top of them. But China has been doing this faster than the other claimants. And the other claimants and the U.S. say that by doing this China is violating international laws and its own commitments to its neighbors. And they say that unless someone does something to stop China, it will achieve de facto control over these international waters.

INSKEEP: Is the United States really in a position to do something to stop China?

KUHN: Well, you know, they're only considering at this point sending naval ships and planes into the area as one possible option, and it's an option that China is very concerned about. China says this is our territory. We can build whatever we want on it. And if U.S. planes and ships come near those islands, they would see that as a violation of its sovereignty, and that would be a serious matter. Now, the U.S. would be saying we are demonstrating freedom of navigation. In a way, it's sort of a show of strength to show that we can do this and no country can stop us from doing it. If the U.S. sends planes and ships to the region, it would represent a sort of an escalation. The U.S. has not really responded militarily to the reclamation of land in this area by China.

INSKEEP: So we have this sort of waterborne and airborne game of chess going on in the South China Sea. At the same time, the United States has this vital relationship with China. They're gigantic trading partners, for starters, and Secretary of State John Kerry is arriving where you are in Beijing shortly. What's his agenda?

KUHN: Well, first of all, Steve, he's preparing for a state visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington later this year. Next month, there is a high-level government dialogue, and the strategy of the U.S.'s engagement in China is to work on all these other issues - the economy, trade, climate change - and develop the sort of trust and positive momentum that could outweigh the mistrust and the tensions in the military and security area. But I think a lot of international relations areas would say when you have a national security threat or a military flare-up, it tends to push these other issues out of the way. It's also interesting to remember that last year we had similar problems - tensions in the South China Sea. And then President Obama came to China in November for a summit, and in order to make that summit go smoothly, all the countries toned down their rhetoric and their actions. And we could very possibly see the same thing happening this year.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is in Beijing. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.