Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is getting the U.S. involved in a complex, international dispute over a chain of islands in the South China Sea. China and nearby Asian states have long made competing claims as to who controls the strategically located islands. Speaking at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation in Hanoi, Vietnam, Clinton said that the U.S. has a "national interest" in resolving the issue peacefully. Here's what's going on, why it matters, and what could happen next, according to key journalists and experts.

  • China's Aggressive Agenda  "For decades, China has sparred with Southeast Asian nations over control of 200 tiny islands, rocks and spits of sand that dot these waters," The New York Times' Mark Landler explains. "China's maritime ambitions have expanded along with its military and economic muscle. It has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits. And it has put American officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a 'core interest' of sovereignty." (Are the U.S. and China making up?)
  • Clinton Not Taking Sides on Territorial Disputes, But China Still Mad  "Clinton stressed," writes The Associated Press's Cara Anna, "that the U.S. doesn't support any country's claim over the islands but her comments are expected to anger China, which maintains it has sovereignty in the South China Sea, and insists on dealing with the dispute directly with other claimants away from the international arena." (As North Korea severs ties, is violence near?)
  • Building Regional Cooperation in Pacific  The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon explains the U.S. agenda. "The Obama administration is working to establish an international mechanism to resolve disputes between Asian nations over claims in the South China Sea," he writes. "The U.S., as a Pacific Ocean nation and trading power, has grown increasingly concerned about the competing claims for territory in the South China Sea. ... The dispute has raised concerns that an increasingly powerful Chinese military could seek to dominate Asian waters." (U.S. launches war games near Korean peninsula, but will they deter North Korea?)
  • China's Long-Term Naval Expansion  Robert Kaplan writes in Foreign Affairs about China's generational, 21st-century goal of using naval power and influence to expand its sphere of influence well beyond East Asia. "China will project hard power abroad primarily through its navy. ... China, owing to a 9,000-mile temperate coastline with many good natural harbors, is both a land power and a sea power. ... China's virtual reach extends from Central Asia, with all its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean."
  • U.S.-Vietnam Relations Warming  AOL News' Jonathan Adams reports the upshot of Clinton's move. "Relations between one-time bitter enemies are warming. The two countries are forging better ties, pushed in part by mutual concerns over China's expansionism in the South China Sea, as well as a desire to expand trade and investment. But Clinton also raised concerns about human rights in Vietnam, highlighting the sharp differences that remain between Washington and Hanoi's autocratic, communist-party-controlled state, which sharply limits dissent."