Tensions between China and the Philippines remain high and U.S. officials say the likelihood Beijing will take some type of military action is growing.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to the dispute over a 10-mile square South China Sea lagoon called Scarborough Shoal and is not vocally supporting Manila in its dispute over fishing rights.
One worrying sign was China’s dispatch this week of five warships, including a 20,000-ton amphibious landing ship to waters between Taiwan and the Philippines.
A U.S. official said, "Sending warships to the Scarborough Shoal area in the South China Sea is an unusual move for China, but official statements suggest Beijing still prefers a diplomatic solution to the standoff."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland repeated the administration’s previous position that it favors diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute and opposes the use of force.
However, a U.S. defense official said the Hawaii-based Pacific Command was ordered not to send U.S. Navy warships to the region to support the Philippines, whose naval forces are said to be very limited.
The United States signed a 1951 defense treaty with Manila called the Mutual Defense Treaty.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton criticized the administration for not taking a forceful position in support of the Philippines.
"China's assertive, near-belligerent, territorial claims in the South and East China Seas require a resolute response from the United States," Bolton told the Free Beacon.
"Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not doing nearly enough to make clear to China that its behavior is unacceptable."
Since the dispute broke out a month ago when a Filipino naval vessel sought to arrest a group of Chinese fishing boats, neither Defense Secretary Leon Panetta nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have commented publicly in support of the Philippines.
Pressed on whether the administration backed Manila in the dispute and would abide by the defense treaty, Nuland said of the recent visit by Filipino defense and foreign ministers, "In the context of the visit here, as we always do when we meet with Philippine leaders, we reconfirmed our commitment to the Mutual Defense Treaty."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigation, said the current risk of a conflict is the result of "two decades of less-than-courageous policies toward China."
"We have let communist China get away with a veiled threat and actual occupation of territory that’s in dispute. And so today we are in a very precarious situation," Rohrabacher said in an interview.
Panetta discussed the South China Sea maritime issues with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie on Monday. "Panetta was clear that he believes disagreements over the South China Sea should be resolved in a peaceful manner and in accord with international law," a defense official said.
A key indicator of possible military action came with the statement on Tuesday by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who said she was "not optimistic" about the standoff and added that China has "made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side." The comments followed a meeting in Beijing with a Filipino embassy official.
"It is hoped that the Philippine side will not misjudge the situation and not escalate tensions without considering the consequences," Fu said, according to Xinhua.
The remarks were widely interpreted as a veiled threat by China to use force.
A defense official said one possible course of action by China would be to carry out some type of shooting attack against Filipino fishermen, an action China’s military has taken in the past.
Several years ago, China used force with a machine gun attack on Vietnamese fishermen on the other side of the South China Sea. The attack was captured on video and widely posted on the Internet, showing unarmed fishermen in the water being gunned down by a Chinese patrol boat.
The dispute began April 8 when a Filipino navy ship tried to arrest the fishermen aboard eight Chinese vessels in the lagoon known as Scarborough Shoal, part of the Spratlys island chain, some 120 miles from the coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon. Manila says the waters are within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China claims the lagoon is within its wide claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, claims disputed by the United States as well as the Philippines, Vietnam, and other states in the region.
The standoff escalated after two Chinese maritime patrol vessels blocked the arrest of the Chinese fishermen by Filipino authorities.
State-run media in China have been filled with reports that China should be prepared to go to war to assert its sovereignty over what it calls the Nansha islands.
Richard Fisher, a China military specialist, said the People’s Liberation Army has a history of attacking in the South China Sea when its enemies are weak, including attacks on Vietnamese occupied islands and reefs in 1974 and 1988.
China took over the Spratly’s Mischief Reef, about 200 miles from the Philippine island of Palawanm, in 1995 when Manila lacked forces for a response.
"Would the PLA brazenly gun down the one or two unarmed Philippine Coast Guard ships now at Scarborough Shoal?" asked Fisher, who is with the International Assessment and Strategy Center. "Well, in 1988, when the Vietnamese sent about 40 soldiers with rifles into the water to stand on a reef to deter the PLA, because they just did not have anything else, the PLA obliterated them with 37mm cannon fire. So yes, it is not out of the question that the PLA could launch a savage attack to teach Manila a lesson."
Chinese military spokesmen have been quoted in recent news accounts saying China must take action.
Fu’s comments reflected an earlier statement by Chinese Maj. Gen. Huang Haiyun, who said in an article that was published April 24, "Of course, we cannot lightly resort to armed force; armed force is the ultimate option, and we should not be the first to start it."
"The task of overriding importance is to make good use of economic levers, so that countries that dare to challenge China's core interests will pay an economic and livelihood price that they can hardly bear," Huang said.
Former State Department China affairs specialist John Tkacik said China in recent months has stepped up rhetorical attacks regarding its South China Sea claims, with senior naval commanders hinting at the use of force.
"The target of this propaganda campaign is not Manila, however, but Washington," Tkacik said. "Beijing will push the South China Sea issue as far as it can to see how the Obama administration responds."
Regarding the mutual defense pact, "China is eager to show the rest of Asia that ties with the U.S. are meaningless at best, and can antagonize China at worst," Tkacik said.
The administration’s reaction to the standoff has been to use China’s illicit territorial sea claims to lobby for U.S. ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty, which has a tribunal that allows disputes to be resolved.
"It truly makes no sense to ratify the convention as a response to China’s behavior since China not only is already a party to the [convention], but Beijing has also formally told the U.S. Embassy that the [convention] is ‘irrelevant’ to China’s maritime claims because China’s claims ‘antedate’ the convention," Tkacik said.
China recently initiated a policy it calls the "Nine-Dash Line" that covers some 90 percent of the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as sovereign territorial waters.
"This is a claim that had puzzled the international community because it had no basis in international law and no basis in the historical record," Tkacik said. "Now, China’s Southeast Asian neighbors realize that China’s claims are absolute, and that sooner or later, they will either have an armed confrontation with China, or they will have to surrender their own claims."
The Chinese claims also pose a major threat to the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation through international waters. The South China Sea is the single most important commercial sea-lane carrying large amounts of goods and energy resources from the Middle East to Asia.
If China’s claims to the South China Sea are not challenged, the Navy could be blocked from operating in the waters, Tkacik said.