The US and China splashed unusually harsh words on each other this week, but it may prove just a ripple in a larger dispute.

In short, Beijing summoned a senior US diplomat on Aug. 4, after Washington criticized a new city and military garrison that China set up in a widely contested ocean area stretching 3.5 million kilometers (1.4 million miles), from Taiwan to Singapore.

A US Department of State spokesman said on Aug. 3 that China's new Sansha City and companion military base in the tiny Paracel Islands "run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region."

China lashed back with a stern statement on its foreign ministry website: "The US state department's so-called statement on the South China Sea issue disregards reality, confuses right and wrong, and sends a seriously wrong signal."

The ministry had to vent because that's about all it can do to stick up for China's expanding claim to the disputed ocean without risking a harsher US reaction, including not-so-subtle support for Southeast Asian nations that also claim the sea.

What appears to be the worst spat between the US and China over the South China Sea shows Beijing's nervousness about the US getting involved in an Asian territorial dispute with so much at stake for China: seafood, oil, and natural gas. But China seems to realize it's best not to match its fiery words with actual fire.

Despite mutual suspicion of each side's weight on the world stage and competing political systems, the two usually cooperate because they need each other as trade partners. But US criticism of Beijing's latest move in the South China Sea, which China and five other governments claim and plumb for critical natural resources, hit too close to some of China's vital interests.

Because competing claimants Taiwan and Vietnam have already staked a claim to other disputed islets, China likely thought it could do the same without a backlash, especially since founding a city involved no real conflict.

The US wants the six competing South China Sea claimants – which also include Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines – to get along so that none block its shipping lanes. About half the world's commercial shipping uses the South China Sea, and Washington depends on the lanes to pass military vessels.

The US has urged cooperation and that China join other claimants in working out a solution to the sovereignty dispute as they aggressively trawl for fish and probe for oil.

"The State Department at least wanted to fire a warning shot to all parties to not make the situation worse," says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. It was like the US was saying "Don't do anything stupid," he adds.

But China is not likely to follow up on its angry words and temporarily cancel broader Sino-US dialogue – as it did after Washington showed support for the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan government in exile, or when it talked with China's political rival Taiwan about arms sales.

It is in China's interest to use strong language, especially as Politburo leaders in Beijing posture ahead of a leadership reshuffle this year to show its power, but it wants to avoid real conflict that could upset other nations and reel the US into the dispute. In April, when China pressed down on the disputed Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines's Luzon Island, the US held joint military exercises with the Philippines.

Analysts have said Washington tacitly sides with the smaller claimants, not China, although it officially doesn't take sides.

"[China] will not do anything stupid," Mr. Huang says. "I don't think China will pick a fight in the next 12 months." 


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