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Intense displays of naval power flared up again in recent weeks in the resource-rich South China Sea as Vietnam conducted naval live-fire drills after Chinese ships rammed a Vietnamese survey vessel and cut the cable being towed by another, triggering anti-China protests in Hanoi.

China, in return, held its own naval exercises in the disputed maritime area, and actively worked diplomatically to try and isolate Vietnam.

On Sunday, the Chinese naval surveillance ship, Haixun 31, began a five-day visit to Singapore, which, unlike its several neighbors, has no claim over the disputed Spratlys and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea.

The Singaporean government, however, seized the opportunity and demanded on Monday that China openly clarify its sweeping but ambiguous claims in the South China Sea. Among the questions: Does China claim only the islands or the vast body of water in the region? Does China claim the area as its territorial sovereign water or as its Exclusive Economic Zone where international navigation should not be impeded?

In the same statement, the Singapore government stressed the paramount importance of the freedom of navigation, a subtle and unambiguous rebuttal to Beijing’s naval ambition.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at