China warned Asian neighbors to stop searching for oil near disputed islands in the South China Sea and vowed to assert its sovereignty over the area despite rival claims. China also accused the United States of trying to provoke disputes between China and its Asian neighbors.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have each asserted claims to all or part of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, and islands in the South China Sea.
The combined land mass is less than four square kilometers spread out over more than 425,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. The islands have very little economic value on their own, but they are important to establish international boundaries and the rights to exploit rich fishing grounds and potentially significant reserves of oil and natural gas.
China's warning to its neighbors follows on a series of incidents in which China has used harassment and property damage to assert its presence.
In February of this year, a Chinese navy vessel allegedly fired warning shots to disperse Filipino fishermen from Jackson Atoll, which is claimed by the Philippines and close to its shore. The Philippine government has cited five other instances in its complaints to China, including one in March when two Chinese patrol boats tried to ram a Philippine survey ship.
Last month, Chinese vessels cut a cable on a Vietnamese ship conducting seismic surveys in waters well within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and more recently harassed a Vietnamese vessel conducting seismic surveys within Vietnam’s continental shelf.
Adding to the concerns in the region, China confirmed this week that it will launch its first aircraft carrier.
China has become very sensitive to criticism of its actions in the region, most recently complaining that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director, Leon Panetta, was trying to interfere with China's relations with his neighbors by frightening them. In testimony before a Congressional panel considering his nomination to be the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, Panetta said that China appears to be building the capability "to fight and win short-duration, high-intensity conflicts" along its borders.