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Meanwhile, the U.S. has already laughed off what the Chinese consider their rightful claim. Facts tend to support the U.S. argument that its plane was well outside the internationally accepted limit of 12 miles. However, it's worth noting that under the Law of the Sea Treaty, states can claim territory up to 200 miles off their coast, in order to protect economic interests including petroleum and fishing. While we didn't sign the treaty, we have used the 200-mile limit as a rationale for throwing out Soviet and Japanese fishing ships from the waters along the northwest coast.
Under the treaty, nations have the right to fly within another country's 200-mile limit, except when doing so interferes with the economic interests. It's almost certain that future claims, especially to oil, gas, and other resources in South Asia, will invoke this provision. Enforcing the rules will fall to the United Nations, where China is a major player.
Bush can scarcely make a move in Asia without challenging the Chinese agenda. In Central Asia, the U.S. and other nations are trying to tie down the reportedly immense oil and gas reserves. The Chinese, for centuries a major power in Central Asia, also have their eyes on the oil. They now are busily making trade deals in the area, hoping to grab a good portion of the newly found resource. China also is considering building a pipeline that would run from former Soviet Union states in Central Asia east through the Xinjiang semiautonomous zone, a huge swath of China jutting into the territory.
The web of interests and claims would puzzle Solomon. For Bush, saddled with a heritage of conflict and hardly known as a great improviser, nothing in this region will come easily.
Additional reporting: Adam Gray and Rouven Gueissaz