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Photograph: Photo by Yosomono, used under CC BY

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to evoke tensions across Asia thanks to actions by Beijing seen by many as little more than a land grab. China says the seas belongs to it, but its neighbours don’t agree. And America seems keen on testing the waters. Will the problems just percolate, or are we close to a blow-up?

No one wants war to break out in the South China Sea. At the same time, an increasing tug of war between the United States and China could plunge the world’s busiest sea lane into turmoil.

That's the 5-trillion-dollar problem facing the region. The figure refers to the amount of cargo passing through the disputed seas every year. The problem is that the stakes are high for all countries involved in the territorial row.

Aside from being a key shipping lane, the tongue-shaped region is also believed to be rich in mineral and marine resources.

Analysts warn that the risk of conflict in the seas is significant, especially as the United States pushes the limits of China’s claim - which stretches to almost its entire area - by sending warships near Beijing-controlled territories.

While Beijing did not take action when the US Navy launched the “freedom of navigation patrols” in October, Washington’s plan to hold more such actions could trigger an unintentional crisis, analysts say.

“Such operations could gravely destabilize the South China Sea situation, even peace and stability of the whole region,” said Zhang Baohui, a political science professor and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnam University in Hong Kong.

“They could touch off an unintended escalation and push the two countries towards military conflicts,” he added.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior advisor for the Sydney-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that a high level of mistrust and competition between the US and China makes for a more volatile mix.

“A miscalculation or misunderstanding could then result in a deadly exchange of fire, leading to further military escalation and precipitating a major political crisis,” Glaser said.

“Rising US-China mistrust and intensifying bilateral strategic competition would likely make managing such a crisis more difficult,” she added.

The US is not the only country challenging China’s claim to the South China Sea, where Beijing has built artificial islands on disputed territories to boost its claims.

A United Nations tribunal has been hearing an arbitration case filed by the Philippines in 2013. It could hand down a decision in 2016.

The tribunal has already ruled that it has jurisdiction over the case - in which the Philippines challenges China’s sweeping claims - brushing aside Beijing’s objection and refusal to participate in the process.

The Philippines stressed that, whatever the outcome of the case was, the tribunal’s verdict would benefit everyone in the international community and help ease the tensions in the region.

“For China, it will define and clarify its maritime entitlements,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario told the tribunal. “For the Philippines, it will clarify what is ours, specially our fishing rights.”

“For the rest of the international community, it will help ensure peace, security, stability and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” he added.

Del Rosario said the result of the arbitration would also be “instructive” for other nations in disputes settlement and allow small nations to stand up to great powers.

“International law is the great equalizer among states,” he noted. “Those who think 'might makes right' have it backwards. It is exactly the opposite, in that right makes might.”

While the Philippines has stressed that the arbitration case was meant to preserve its friendship with China, Beijing has been feeling the pressure as other countries, including the US and Japan, expressed support for the peaceful settlement of the disputes.

In response to America’s freedom of navigation patrols, China has gradually escalated it response, first conducting war games in the South China Sea in October, then issuing rare photos of missiles attached to nuclear submarines.

Zhang, the political science professor from Lingnam University in Hong Kong, cautioned countries, especially the US, about their dealings with China amid the row.

“What is vital for peace and stability in the South China Sea is that all concerned parties should base their strategies and policies on worst-case scenarios,” he said. “Prudence is very much needed at this stage of Sino-US relations, when mutual mistrust has reached an all-time high.”

“Imprudent actions by one or both parties may well turn mistrust into bloody military conflicts,” he added. “Nobody, especially countries in the region, wants this scenario.”

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