THE first Asean summit to be held in Myanmar opens this weekend amid a worsening blame game pitting China against Vietnam, the Philippines and the United States over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Regional tensions spiked this week following Manila's arrest of 11 Chinese fishermen for poaching turtles near the Spratlys claimed by Beijing, along with China's placement of an exploration oil rig near the Paracel islands that sparked collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels.
Temperatures could rise further after the Philippines offered a tender for exploration rights in 11 oil and gas blocks yesterday, including a disputed area near Palawan island also claimed by China.
Days after criticising Vietnam and the Philippines, China yesterday fired fierce broadsides at the US - which has called Beijing's moves "provocative" - for stoking regional tensions.
"It must be pointed out that the recent series of irresponsible and wrong comments from the US which neglect the facts about the relevant waters have encouraged certain countries' dangerous and provocative behaviour," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing.
Sino-Asean expert Xu Liping told The Straits Times China's criticisms show that its oil rig move was largely intended as a warning to the US and its allies.
"China feels the US has shifted its South China Sea policy from non-interference to slight interference and now to deep interference, and that its security guarantees have emboldened US allies to be more provocative towards China," said the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences analyst.
He cited US President Barack Obama's "ironclad" pledge to defend the Philippines and the inking of a defence cooperation pact during his recent visit to Manila.
Analysts believe China's actions near the Paracels were also prompted by reports that PetroVietnam and ExxonMobil were developing a natural gas field near where its oil rig is operating.
Dr Xu said Beijing had likely made a careful political calculation and concluded that moving the rig days before the start of the Asean summit would not affect its South China Sea claims or damage its regional standing. "China believes its claim in the Paracels is not in dispute and less tricky than that in the Spratlys," he added.
The Paracels are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan, while China's claim over the Spratlys are challenged by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Beijing's oil rig move, however, was met with a robust response from Vietnam, which promptly sent its own vessels to the area.
On Wednesday, Hanoi accused Chinese vessels of ramming Vietnamese ships and using water cannons to chase them away.
Refuting the claims on Thursday, Beijing said 36 Vietnamese ships rammed the Chinese vessels up to 171 times from May 3 to 7. A Foreign Ministry official also said the Chinese ships were unarmed, unlike those sent by Vietnam.
Analysts say the incidents are likely to make some Asean nations want to work towards an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
But the spats have caused some friction within Asean.
Philippine diplomats told Reuters that other members "were opposed to issuing a separate statement on the latest South China Sea (tensions) or mentioning the tensions in the communique".