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.
CHINESE SHIPS SHADOW U.S. CARRIER TASK FORCE
At least one Chinese ship tailed the USS John C. Stennis daily during its recent cruise through the South China Sea, although no hostile incidents were reported, the commander of the carrier strike group said last week.
Rear Adm. Marcus Hitchcock said that the Chinese were a constant presence, but that he didn't know what ships had been shadowing the strike group or what their purpose for being there had been.
"We did see the (People's Liberation Army Navy) ships quite routinely throughout the South China Sea. As a matter of fact, we were in constant visual contact with at least one PLAN ship at any given time, 24-7," Hitchcock told reporters aboard the 100,000-ton Nimitz class carrier.
Hitchcock said interactions between the two navies were "safe, they were professional, we had a way to communicate effectively with each other and we didn't have any misunderstandings or miscalculations or anything like that."
"I don't find it much of a bother at all, to be honest," he said. "They maintain a respectful distance and they haven't really tried to interfere with any of our operations. So they're just a presence there and we've been able to conduct anything we've wanted to throughout the entire time."
Despite lingering suspicions, the two navies have been gradually expanding contacts and have agreed to protocols to avoid unintended incidents at sea.
US CARRIERS CONDUCT DUAL FLIGHT OPERATIONS
The USS John C. Stennis was joined in the South China Sea last week by the USS Ronald Reagan, allowing the two to carry out dual flight operations in international waters.
The presence of the two carrier strike groups demonstrated the U.S.'s unique ability to operate tandem forces in the same area at the same time and afforded a rare opportunity for joint training "in a high end scenario," Rear Adm. John D. Alexander, commander of the Reagan carrier strike group, was quoted as saying on the website of the U.S. 7th Fleet.
"We must take advantage of these opportunities to practice warfighting techniques that are required to prevail in modern naval operations," Alexander was quoted as saying.
The commander of the Stennis strike group, Rear Adm. Marcus Hitchcock, recalled that he and Alexander first flew together in an A-6 carrier-based aircraft in July 1988.
"No other Navy can concentrate this much combat power on one sea or synchronize the activities of over 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft, six combatants and two carriers," Hitchcock said.
Accompanying the Stennis in its strike group was the guided missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay and the guided missile destroyers USS Stockdale, USS Chung-Hoon and USS William P. Lawrence.
The Reagan, which is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, and routinely patrols the Western Pacific, was accompanied by the guided-missile cruisers USS Shiloh and USS Chancellorsville and guided-missile destroyers USS Curtis Wilbur, USS McCampbell and USS Benfold.
ASEAN DIVISION PREVENTS SIGNING OF STATEMENT ON SOUTH CHINA SEA
Differences within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations prevented the 10-nation bloc last week from issuing a tough statement on territorial feuds in the South China Sea after a meeting hosted by China, a Philippine official said.
Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters that all of the ASEAN foreign ministers initially agreed on the text of the joint statement, but that some may have changed their mind later.
In the statement, the foreign ministers expressed "serious concerns over recent and ongoing developments, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and which may have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea."
The disunity in ASEAN underscores the difficulty of resolving the disputes, which analysts fear could spark an armed confrontation in one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
A senior Philippine diplomat said Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar withdrew their backing of the joint statement to avoid offending China, which later opposed its official issuance because of a lack of a consensus within ASEAN.
The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the sensitive issue with reporters.
China has steadfastly argued that the disputes should be negotiated between Beijing and each of its rival claimants, an arrangement that would give it an advantage because of its size and clout, and would effectively shut out the United States, which it has told not to intervene in what it described as Asian disputes.
INDONESIAN NAVY FIRES ON CHINESE FISHING BOAT
China's Foreign Ministry said the Indonesian navy opened fire at a Chinese fishing boat in the South China Sea last week, injuring a fisherman and detaining its seven-man crew.
The incident happened Saturday off the Natuna islands, off the northwest coast of Borneo, in the South China Sea. The waters in question are claimed by China, but Indonesia considers them part of its exclusive economic zone, which would give it the right to resources including fish.
China's Foreign Ministry said the Chinese fishing boat was carrying out normal fishing operations in its traditional fishing grounds when the Indonesian navy shot at it, harming one fisherman and damaging the boat. It said the injured crew member had already been transferred to China's southern Hainan Island for treatment and was in stable condition.
It said it had strongly protested the actions by the Indonesian navy, which had "abused its military force."
It is at least the third such incident since March, when Indonesia intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel off the Natuna islands.