BEIJING — A look at recent 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.
DUTERTE TAKES LOW-KEY APPROACH TO DISPUTE WITH CHINA
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last week that he would not raise maritime disputes with China at a meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Laos next month, preferring to talk quietly with Chinese officials.
“I will only bring the issue when we are together face to face,” he told reporters. “Because if you quarrel with them now and you claim sovereignty, make noise here and there, they might not just even want to talk.”
Duterte has been lukewarm in his support for the international arbitration case filed by his predecessor and has said he was adopting “a softer approach” to resolving the disputes.
He said last week that his special envoy to China, former President Fidel Ramos, is paving the way for possible talks with China.
“Let us create an environment where we can sit down, talk directly, and that is the time when I would say, we proceed from here,” he said.
Ramos flew to Hong Kong earlier this month to meet the Chinese legislature’s foreign affairs chief, Fu Ying, and a leading government-backed scholar on the dispute, and they agreed on the need to reduce tensions through talks.
China welcomed him to visit Beijing for discussions, but the tribunal ruling was not directly discussed, Ramos told reporters. He gave no indication of when any talks might be held.
PHILIPPINES RECEIVES COAST GUARD SHIP FROM JAPAN
The Philippine coast guard took possession last week of the first of nine multi-role response vessels being provided by Japan in an effort to boost a chronic shortage of maritime assets amid Manila’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
The 44-meter (144-foot) BRP Tubbataha was formally received at the port in the capital, Manila, after having left Japan on Aug. 11 with a dozen officers and sailors on board. The ships are being built by the Japan Marine United Corporation’s Yokohama shipyard.
Alongside the U.S. military’s heightened emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region, Japan has been upping its presence in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, partly to counter China’s growing footprint. Aside from their close geographic proximity, the Philippines and Japan are both U.S. treaty partners who are locked in maritime territorial claims with Beijing.
The Philippines challenged the validity of China’s claims and aggressive actions in the South China Sea after Chinese government ships took control of disputed Scarborough Shoal following a tense standoff in 2012. China, meanwhile, claims sovereignty over a string of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea controlled by Japan and has lately stepped-up coast guard activities in the area.
Closer cooperation between Japan and the Philippines is sure to anger China, which suffered from Japanese invasion in World War II and warns constantly of a resurgence of militaristic sentiments within Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative government.
CHINA, ASEAN AGREE ON RULES GOVERNING SEA ENCOUNTERS
Senior officials from China and Southeast Asian Nations met in northern China last week to agree on rules governing unexpected encounters at sea in hopes of avoiding conflicts.
Representatives from Beijing and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations discussed implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002.
That agreement was intended to promote “peace, stability and mutual trust in the South China Sea,” but has been largely shoved aside by China’s decision to assert its own claim to virtually the entire strategic water body.
Despite that, all parties say they want to avoid hostile encounters that could spark a larger conflict. The agreed on Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea had already been adopted by several, but not all ASEAN countries, at a meeting in China in 2014.
“The code itself is technical, but applying the code has political significance. It is politically important to prevent potential risks on South China Sea,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told attendees at the meeting in the city of Manzhouli in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region.
China and ASEAN are still discussing a South China Sea Code of Conduct that would more explicitly define rights and obligations among countries with overlapping territorial claims in the crucial water body.
CHINA HOLDS LIVE-FIRING EXERCISES IN GULF OF TONKIN
China’s coast guard launched live-firing exercises in the Gulf of Tonkin on Monday, the latest in a series of military drills that come amid a renewed focus on the multinational dispute over maritime claims in the South China Sea.
The Maritime Safety Administration said ships and boats were barred from the area, called the Beibu Gulf by China, from Monday to Wednesday. The gulf lies between China’s southern island province of Hainan and the northeastern coast of Vietnam
China’s navy and air force have held a series of drills in surrounding waters since an international arbitration panel in The Hague issued a ruling last month invalidating Beijing’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, where six governments in all claim territory.
China angrily rejected the ruling and said it would begin flying regular air patrols over the strategic waterway while continuing to develop airstrips, harbors and other infrastructure of military value on man-made islands it controls in the disputed Spratly group.
China also plans joint naval exercises with Russia in the South China Sea next month in a move criticized by the U.S. as harming regional stability.