BANGKOK – 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 oil and gas 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.
EX-VIETNAM DIPLOMAT BACKS PHILIPPINES' POLICY SHIFT
A former Vietnamese diplomat says he and his country agree with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's policy shift toward China and the disputes in the South China Sea.
Dinh Hoang Thang, Vietnam's former ambassador to the Netherlands, said in Tokyo last week that it made sense for the Philippines to take a hard-line approach at first by seeking arbitration of its disputes with China, and then adjust its stance after it won the case in July.
Duterte has adopted a more cooperative position toward China than his predecessor, while also saying he would end joint military drills with the U.S. that have angered China.
Asked if Vietnam might also change its approach, Thang said, "For a country like Vietnam and the Philippines, the most challenging issue is how to construct and maintain the balance among the big powers. And here I don't see the big differences between the approach of the Philippines and Vietnam."
Philippine Rep. Harry Roque noted that China's coast guard has stopped blocking Filipino fishermen from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Roque, a lawyer who represents the fishermen, said the move means China is abiding by one aspect of the arbitration ruling, even if it officially rejects the court's jurisdiction. "That would indicate that they still recognize the binding decision ... even if verbally they say the contrary," he said.
He noted, though, that there was no formal agreement on this issue, because China wanted to "allow" or "permit" Filipinos while the Philippines maintained that permission is not needed since the binding ruling found they were traditional fishing grounds of the Philippines, China and Vietnam.
MALAYSIA TONES DOWN DISPUTE WITH CHINA
China scored another diplomatic victory in trying to co-opt rival South China Sea claimants when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak signed a defense deal with Beijing and agreed to cooperate on maritime affairs.
Najib became the third Southeast Asian leader after the Philippines and Vietnam to travel to Beijing recently in an outreach that has blunted moves in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to more aggressively confront China's actions in the disputed waters, including fortification of man-made islands.
In a jab at the U.S., China and Malaysia said in a joint statement that the involvement of parties "not directly concerned" with the maritime dispute "could be counterproductive." They also called for self-restraint in the South China Sea.
In an editorial published in the state-run China Daily, Najib lashed out at "former colonial powers," saying it was not "for them to lecture countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today."
Malaysia has been a less vocal claimant compared to the Philippines and Vietnam, although it has occasionally expressed concern over China's actions, particularly a Chinese coast guard vessel that has been anchored near Luconia Shoals within Malaysia's exclusive economic zone.
Malaysia agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels for coastal patrols, two of which will be built in China and the other two in Malaysia. Najib also witnessed the signing of a memorandum on defense cooperation, the details of which were not released.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said that the two countries were "focusing on naval cooperation," and that the deal "marks a big event in our bilateral ties," the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
U.S. DOWNPLAYS COUNTRIES' U-TURN ON CHINA
Even as the Philippines and Malaysia appear to be cozying up to China in a departure from a more confrontational approach in their territorial disputes with Beijing, the United States — publicly, at least — sees no reason for alarm.
"This idea that there's some sort of landslide movement towards China and away from the United States is simply not borne out by the facts, especially in so many of those countries where we too have strong and improving bilateral relationships," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters. "They don't have to be binary choices."
He said that the U.S. would remain relevant in the Asia-Pacific region, even as he acknowledged that Washington was not "blind" to China's advancing its military capabilities, and that "two or three, four" ASEAN countries have become friendlier to Beijing.
Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during a visit to China that the U.S. would continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea that challenge Beijing's territorial claims.
INDONESIA, AUSTRALIA CONSIDER JOINT PATROLS
Australia and Indonesia have announced they're considering joint patrols in the contested South China Sea.
Indonesia and China have ratcheted up tensions around the Natuna Islands in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea, where Indonesian vessels have fired at Chinese fishing boats. The waters in question are claimed by China, but Indonesia considers them part of its exclusive economic zone, which gives it the right to resources including fish.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said after meeting Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu that they agreed to "explore options to increase maritime cooperation, and of course that would include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea."
"This is all consistent with our policy of exercising our right of freedom of navigation," she said.
Australia has been supportive of U.S. freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, and has regularly sent its own air force patrols over the region, drawing anger from Beijing.
Associated Press writers Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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