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Gunboat diplomacy in South China Sea

China, undaunted by its first clash with Vietnam over the strategic Spratly islands, plans to dispatch another oceanographic team to the disputed South China Sea archipelago April 18, Chinese officials said Tuesday. Western defense analysts say the new excursion signals Peking's eagerness to assert sovereignty over the islands, which are claimed and fortified by four other Asian powers. Possession of the Spratlys would offer China control of vital military and commercial sea lanes and rights to potentially vast underseas oil and gas reserves.

The coming expedition threatens to further heighten tensions between China and Vietnam, the analysts say.

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The 50-day oceanographic survey will cover a vast swath of sea encompassing the Spratlys and waters just off Vietnam's coast, said Yuan Hengyong, director of planning at the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology in Canton.

``Since the area is very close to the Philippines and Vietnam, we will try to avoid any conflict,'' Mr. Yuan said.

Last month Chinese surveyors escorted by warships landed on a coral reef in the Spratlys, prompting a 30-minute exchange of fire with nearby Vietnamese navy vessels. Chinese frigates overpowered Vietnam's ships, setting three freighters aflame and killing Vietnamese crewmen, according to Hanoi. Peking reported only one person wounded in the clash.

Western analysts say the primary reason for Peking's rush to stake a claim in the Spratlys is that naval forces of Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia have been established there for years.

China, in contrast only started sending troops to the Spratlys in the past year and is now believed to be building its first military outposts on three reefs in the Western part of the archipelago, according to a Western defense attach'e.

Peking's new assertiveness in the Spratlys also stems from confidence in the ability of its increasingly modern navy to protect military installations there, the attach'e said.

Moreover, Chinese naval commanders may seek to prove the need for a bigger naval budget by demonstrating their prowess at gunboat diplomacy in the Spratlys, some analysts said.

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Finally, Peking may seek to publicize its claim in the Spratlys in order to press the Soviet Union to accept Chinese sovereignty prior to a possible normalization of Sino-Soviet ties. Normalization has grown more likely with Moscow's recent decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.

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