BEIJING — A look at some recent key developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential gas and oil reserves:
Editor’s note: This is a weekly look at the latest key developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
China reiterates determination to defend sovereignty claims
China has reiterated its commitment to defending its sovereignty amid new tensions over its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Defense minister Chang Wanquan told a reception on Sunday that China would firmly safeguard its “state sovereignty, national security and development interests.”
“Territorial integrity and maritime rights and interests will be defended,” Chang was cited as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency.
However, Chang also said China’s military is “destined not to fear war, but will definitely cherish peace.” China has not fought in a major confrontation since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam that ended in a stalemate.
Chang’s remarks follow a heightening of tensions in the region after a U.N. arbitration panel ruled July 12 that Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea has no legal basis. Beijing rejected the decision in the case, which was brought by the Philippines, and said it would have no effect on its moves to increase its military and civilian footprint in the crucial water body.
Chang was speaking ahead of Monday’s Army Day, which marks the 89th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, which has been vastly increasing its firepower and technology in recent years. The PLA is a chief driver behind the construction of man-made islands in the South China Sea built by piling sand on top of coral reefs, and is firmly in alignment with President Xi Jinping’s more muscular foreign policy.
China, Russia to hold joint exercises in South China Sea
China’s military said it would hold joint exercises with Russian forces in the South China Sea sometime in September.
The exercises were aimed at deepening relations between the two militaries and boosting their capacity to respond to maritime threats, ministry spokesman Col. Yang Yujun said at a monthly news briefing.
Yang said the exercises weren’t targeted at any third parties. He didn’t disclose the specific location, and some areas of the South China Sea are not disputed.
Chinese ships have challenged vessels from the U.S., the Philippines and other nations in disputed waters, and China considers the Hague-based tribunal’s recent ruling to be invalid.
Russia and China have held numerous joint drills in recent years, united in a desire to stem American power in the Asia-Pacific region, despite their own lingering mistrust over territory and influence in Central Asia.
Russia has also spoken in support of China’s rejection of the case before the international arbitration body, and argued that countries without a direct claim to territory should stay impartial — a clear reference to the U.S., which is a treaty ally of the Philippines and has called on China to accept the ruling as binding.
Six governments in all claim territory in the South China Sea. China says all disputes should be settled bilaterally through negotiations.
Kerry urges turning of page in sea dispute
After months of confrontations in the South China Sea and days of high-stakes diplomacy, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the time has arrived to “move away from the public tensions and turn the page.”
Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of a regional gathering of Southeast Asian countries. China had scored a diplomatic victory when a watered-down joint statement from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations did not criticize China for its actions in the South China Sea and did not mention the arbitration panel’s ruling.
Kerry said at a news conference that the U.S. is not taking sides on the substance of maritime disputes, but believes “rule of law must be upheld.” China leaned on Cambodia and other close allies to prevent ASEAN from making a critical statement, saying the disputes should be handled in one-on-one negotiations and not by the regional bloc.
Vietnam voices support for bilateral negotiations with China
While Vietnam aims to settle its South China Sea dispute with China through bilateral negotiations, it doesn’t rule out applying international laws, the country’s deputy foreign minister said.
“Our consistent policy is to settle disputes through peaceful means in accordance with national laws and United Nations (conventions and laws), and we attach quite (a lot of) importance to bilateral negotiations,” Le Hoai Trung told The Associated Press.
“For us, all means of peaceful settlement are important. All means. So you can count (international arbitration), but we attach importance to bilateral negotiations,” he said on the sidelines of a regional security meeting hosted by Laos. “The important factor is you need to have the goodwill, and you need to base your claims on international law, the relevant international law.”
The ruling in the case brought by the Philippines should embolden all claimants now that they know the international law does not favor China. Yet, the four Southeast Asian countries that are party to the dispute have little clout in the face of China’s might and are reluctant to escalate tensions by internationalizing the issue.