October 7th, 2010
05:33 AM GMT
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Hong Kong, China (CNN) – Fishermen detained in disputed waters, an angry call from a neighboring government for an “unconditional and immediate” release as tensions rise.

No, it’s not Beijing ire directed at the September arrest of Chinese fishermen by Japanese Coast Guard off the coast of an East China Sea island both countries claim. On Wednesday, the official Vietnam News Agency called for the release of nine Vietnamese fishermen detained by China in the South China Sea last month. China claims the fishermen were using dynamite to catch fish in waters both nations claim.

The dispute over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands (what you call the rocks poking out of the sea depends on whether you are Japanese or Chinese) raised tensions to the highest levels in Tokyo and Beijing and spurred nationalist demonstrations in both countries. Talks on sharing undeveloped oil fields in the region were halted along with other economic and cultural exchanges.

The dispute in the South China Sea, however, could prove to be more problematic. Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have claims, along with China, on the Spratley and Paracel islands. Tensions have been rising with China’s Southeast Asian neighbors in tandem with Beijing’s growing economic and military might.

At the heart of both disputes is a term of international maritime law known as “Exclusive Economic Zone,” where nations are allowed sole rights to fish and develop resources within 200 nautical miles of a country’s shores.

“The South China Sea issue is very interesting,” Wu Kang, an analyst at the East-West Center in Hawaii, told me recently. While the Japan-China island in dispute is near potential gas fields, the South China Sea “is currently producing quite a bit of oil and gas,” Wu said.

In the background of both China Sea disputes is the U.S. military: The island at the center of the dispute with Tokyo is considered part of Japan in a 1973 U.S. defense agreement. The U.S. conducted joint military maneuvers with Vietnam earlier this year. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton rattled Beijing when she waded into the territorial dispute at an ASEAN meeting in July, offering to mediate and suggesting a peaceful outcome was in U.S. national interests.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called Clinton’s comments “an attack on China.”

Already, the growing fracas over islands is being labeled “Asia’s New Cold War.” But the heart of the disputes is this:  Who will have unfettered access to the bounty lying below the waters?

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