The South East Asian countries are trying to influence matters by semantics, explorations and military exercises, but they are all scrambling to assert their rights to the resources of the sea and the sea bed. Asia is the world's industrial heartland and the race for energy and mineral resources is as frenetic as the competition between the European powers in the 19th Century.
The smaller nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia are disputing extensive Chinese claims over the territorial sea. In Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital, demonstrators marched in front of the Chinese embassy, chanting "down with China", something that they could not do without government approval.
Vietnam and China have fought wars and skirmishes and Vietnam has made a point of showing it won't be intimidated. It conducted live fire naval exercises near the disputed region today and is augmenting its Navy via the purchase of 6 Russian submarines.
The United States is officially neutral, but it is sending a guided missile destroyer to the area while claiming that a joint exercise with the Philippines has nothing to do with the dispute.
The Philippine government has renamed the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea and is planning to launch a complaint against China at the United Nations due to what it views as Chinese incursions on Philippine territory.
China rejected the accusations claiming that it had always worked for regional peace and stability. It lamented the fact that this went unreciprocated by other countries and said "China's goodwill and tolerance seem to have played on deaf ears recently. The Philippines and Vietnam have both chosen to provoke China over this issue again." China claimed it had merely conducted scientific studies in waters under China's jurisdiction.
Vietnam launched a broadside against China, claiming that China was following the advice of its legendary military strategist Sun Tzu of "turning nothing into something", making a weak and nonsensical claim into something tangible. At the recent dialogue in Singapore the Chinese defense minister noted the Vietnamese had use the word peace 27 times. However, these protestations of peace were belied by Chinese attacks on Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats and their harassment of Vietnamese oil exploration ships in what the Vietnamese call the East Sea.
Given the disparity in power between the countries, it is China's interest to try to reach bilateral understandings as she has the preponderance in military and economic power.
For Vietnam and the Philippines, the reverse is true. They would like to internationalize the conflict, bringing it before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or to the United Nations.
Another tactic is an attempt to drag in the United States. Some Filipino legislators claim that the US is bound to uphold the claims of the Philippines under the mutual defense treaty with between the 2 countries. The US is in a delicate position as does not want to be dragged in, but neither does it want China to believe that it is indifferent.