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Beijing is Singling Out Rivals to Wrest Control of South China Sea

The South China Sea is officially contested by six governments, all of which need fish, suspect there’s oil to be found there, or who just like the control that comes from claiming ownership of a sea that stretches almost 2,000 miles from Taiwan to Singapore.

China is the largest of the powers vying for control of the South China Sea. It has passed vessels into contested waters, built artificial islands, engaged in a boat-ramming clash with Vietnam, and wrangled with the Philippines over its claims to the body of water. In July of 2016, the Philippines took China to a world arbitration court and won a verdict against China’s historical claims.

But the court’s ruling hasn’t caused China to back down. Instead, the nation seems to be coming on even stronger than before. Since the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency of the Philippines, the two nations have decided to put the past behind them as Duterte diversifies his country’s foreign policy away from the United States.

The most surprising potential fall of an enemy would be Vietnam, and it looks like that may be on the horizon. In January 2017, Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong visited China to talk with Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and six other fellow Communist officials. Chinese state media say that the two nations issued a communiqué in January proposing negotiations on maritime disputes and interim answers that will not compromise either side’s political position.

Vietnam might just be “hedging bets” because U.S. president Donald Trump’s America is hard to predict, said Sean King, Senior Vice President of the consultancy firm Park Strategies.

Even if the agreement with Vietnam is a repeat of points from a 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea signed by countries throughout Southeast Asia, the agreement, along with the softening of relations with the Philippines, points to a change: China is apparently seeking to neutralize its opponents by working things out with them, one by one.

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