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.
CHINESE-RUSSIAN NAVIES HOLD JOINT WAR GAMES
The Chinese and Russian navies launched eight days of war games in the South China Sea on Monday, in a sign of growing cooperation between their armed forces against the backdrop of regional territorial disputes.
The "Joint Sea-2016" maneuvers include surface ships, submarines, ship-borne helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, along with marines and amphibious armored vehicles who will conduct live-firing exercises, according to a Defense Ministry statement issued Sunday.
Tasks will include defensive and rescue drills, anti-submarine exercises and the simulated seizure of an enemy island by marines from both sides.
The ministry didn't say exactly where the drills would be held in the South China Sea, home to heated territorial disputes between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Joint Chinese-Russian drills have grown increasingly common in recent years — this week's exercises are the fifth between the two navies since 2012 — with the countries joined in their mutual suspicion of the U.S. and its allies.
Russia has been the only major country to speak out on China's behalf in its demand that the U.S. and other countries stay out of such arguments. That came as an arbitration panel in the Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling invalidating China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, a result that Beijing angrily rejected as null and void.
While China says the drills do not envision specific enemies or target any third parties, their location in the tense South China Sea has drawn criticism.
During a visit to China last month, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Adm. Scott Swift said: "There are other places those exercises could have been conducted." He described them as part of a series of actions "that are not increasing the stability within the region."
OBAMA RAISES SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTE AT ASEAN MEETING IN LAOS
President Barack Obama raised the South China Sea dispute at last week's regional summit of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Laos.
"We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully, including in the South China Sea," Obama said at the summit. He said the July 12 ruling by the panel in the Hague was binding and "helped to clarify maritime rights in the region."
China shot back with comments aimed at the United States.
"A couple of extra-regional countries still wanted to use the occasion of the East Asia Summit to talk about the South China Sea, particularly to press on the regional countries to abide by the arbitration, which is untimely and inappropriate," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters.
In a victory for Beijing's diplomatic, economic and military clout, ASEAN couldn't even get all of its 10 members to agree that China was responsible for building islands in the disputed and resource-rich sea.
A statement issued at the end of the summit said: "We remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea, without elaborating. It did not mention China by name and made only a passing reference to Beijing's program of building man-made islands in the area by piling sand atop coral reefs.
MARINE EXPERT WARNS ON DAMAGE TO SOUTH CHINA SEA FISHERIES
An oceanologist has warned that China's creation of artificial islands and overfishing by all countries are severely threatening the South China Seas rich fish stocks.
John McManus of the University of Miami told the Philippine newspaper the Inquirer that Manila and Beijing should set aside their territorial dispute over Scarborough Shoal and declare it a "peace park" to preserve the marine environment.
If China were to create yet another man-made island on Scarborough, it would result in the irreplaceable loss of one of the world's most beautiful and productive coral reefs, said McManus, a professor of marine biology and fisheries and director of the National Center for Coral Reef Research at Miami's Rosenstiel School.
"Scarborough reef is in a critical stage. If China builds (an island) there, it's going to be a horrible waste. This is probably the most beautiful reef in the world," McManus was quoted as saying.
China seized the shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard and has prevented Filipino fishermen from reaching their traditional fishery inside the shoal's lagoon, despite the Hague tribunal's ruling that the shoal should be a shared fishing ground
The Philippine coast guard has sighted Chinese barges at Scarborough which could presage the transformation of the Chinese-held reef into another man-made island. One of the Chinese vessels had what appeared to be a crane, according to a Philippine official who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified intelligence.
McManus said the South China Sea marine environment has already deteriorated to an alarming degree, with certain fish species threatened with extinction.