China's Tough Talk Gives Boost to Washington

As China gets bossy with neighbors, U.S. hawks only redouble efforts to swell the naval fleet.

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China's warning that two neighbors refrain from conducting military exercises in the South China Sea could backfire on the government in Beijing.

The Asian power has put Vietnam and the Philippines on notice: Joint military exercises or patrols in the disputed sea will not be tolerated. The sea is a hotly contested issue in Asia, with China and other nations claiming to own it and the gas fields under it.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman reportedly has warned the two nations against any exercises that include the Spratly Islands, which Beijing claims.

But in getting muscular with its neighbors over the islands, is Beijing undermining its own strategic interests?

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"China's claim to the Spratly Islands seems calculated to offend its neighbors, since the closest island is over 500 miles from mainland China. Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are much closer to the islands, and would probably feel threatened by any permanent Chinese presence there," says longtime national security analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.

"China's economy has come a long way in a short time, but its leaders still have a lot to learn about getting along with their neighbors," Thompson says. "Claiming jurisdiction over the distant Spratlys hurts Beijing by making those neighbors more favorably disposed to a U.S. military presence in the region."

Chinese leaders certainly do not improve difficult relations with Washington when they issue such warnings.

"Without commenting directly on the Chinese statement, exercises are conducted routinely by militaries around the world," Pentagon Press Secretary George Little says. "The United States recognizes the right of other countries to conduct such exercises, including naval exercises in international waters."

While Little and other U.S. officials typically take such diplomatic stances toward Chinese actions, congressional hawks who hold the purse strings of American naval shipbuilding are more direct.

"China's insistence that the South China Sea is its sovereign territory, combined with its continued naval buildup, further underscore the need for a strong investment in our Navy." Virginia Republican Randy Forbes, a senior House Armed Services Committee member, tells U.S. News & World Report.

"The U.S. has always supported the freedom of navigation in international waters, including the South China Sea," says Forbes. "The Philippines and Vietnam, just like the United States, have every right to conduct military exercises in this maritime region."

If push came to shove in the region, Thompson says, "Beijing's stance seems especially foolish because it probably lacks the military capability to enforce an exclusive claim to the Spratlys."

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