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.
VIETNAM UPGRADES ITS ISLAND HOLDING
Satellite imagery suggests Vietnam has extended a runway and constructed new hangars on one of the disputed Spratly islands it controls, apparently enabling it to accommodate surveillance aircraft there.
As in the past, Hanoi has not commented on the imagery provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies . The think tank says the construction is modest in comparison to rival claimant China's massive island-building on seven Spratly features.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Friday demanded Vietnam stop construction "on China's territory." And in a meeting with Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in Peru, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the two neighbors should solve disputes bilaterally by "shelving differences and engaging in joint development." That's Beijing's oft-repeated formula that both Vietnam and the Philippines appear to be adopting after years of a more confrontational approach to China's territorial ambitions.
The runway on Spratly Island, one of five Vietnamese bases in the region, has been extended from less than 2,500 feet — the shortest of any claimant's — to about 3,300 feet, and continued reclamation will likely make it more than 4,000 feet long.
The new facilities can easily accommodate the Vietnamese air force's Polish-made PZL M28 "Skytruck" light cargo planes, used for maritime surveillance, and its CASA C-295 twin-turboprop military transport plane, CSIS said. By contrast, China's three largest man-made islands have enough hangar space for 24 fighter jets each.
CHINA FIRST AIRCRAFT CARRIER READY FOR COMBAT
China's first aircraft carrier is ready to engage in combat, marking a milestone for a navy that has invested heavily in its ability to project power far from China's shores.
The Liaoning 's political commissar, Senior Capt. Li Dongyou, said in an interview with the Global Times newspaper that his ship is "constantly prepared to fight against enemies," signaling a change from its past status as a platform for testing and training. Purchased as an incomplete hull from Ukraine more than a decade ago, the Liaoning was commissioned in 2013.
China hasn't described specifically how it intends to use the Liaoning, but it is seen as helping reinforce China's increasingly assertive claims in the South China Sea in the face of challenges from the U.S. Navy and others.
Li said the ship's combat capabilities still lag behind U.S. carriers, but its training and maintenance operations have been praised by senior Pentagon officials who have visited during military exchanges.
US PACIFIC COMMANDER SAYS NO CHANGE IN EXERCISES WITH PHILIPPINES
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, said he was concerned with China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea as he headed to the Philippines last week to discuss the next round of joint exercises.
The drills remained on schedule despite Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's threat to cancel them amid signs of animosity toward the U.S. They might be scaled down, however.
Harris said U.S. special operations forces are still advising Philippine troops in counterterrorism, U.S. surveillance aircraft have continued rotational deployments at Clark Air Base covering the South China Sea and plans for enhanced defense cooperation, agreed to by the previous Philippine administration, remain on track.
Despite tensions in the South China Sea, where the U.S. Navy has carried out its fourth freedom-of-navigation exercise last month by sailing close to a China-occupied island, Harris said that the military-to-military relationship with Beijing "on one level is actually good."
He also said that the U.S. Army should be able to deploy surface-to-ship missiles in the Western Pacific, where they could place at risk potential adversaries in the South and East China seas.
"I think it is an important concept, and we ought to be thinking about it as we figure out how to maintain that edge over our adversaries in the region," he said.
OUTSPOKEN CHINESE GENERAL DISCUSSES SOUTH CHINA SEA IN AUSTRALIA
Australia's ABC network has reported that one of China's most outspoken and powerful generals, Wang Jiaocheng, held a series of meetings with defense officials in Canberra last week.
ABC said the talks in Australia's capital included China's rapid military expansion in the South China Sea, over which Canberra has repeatedly expressed concern.
Earlier this year, Wang was placed in charge of the People's Liberation Army's Southern Theater Command, which looks after the South China Sea region. In February, he warned that China was capable of fighting to defend its sovereignty in the waterway, saying: "No country will be allowed to use any excuse or action to threaten China's sovereignty and safety."
A former Australian deputy defense secretary, Peter Jennings, said Australia can expect to come under pressure from President-elect Donald Trump's administration to start its own freedom of navigation missions challenging China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"For over a year now we've been saying that this is a vital Australian national security interest, yet we've declined to send a ship through the region," said Jennings, who heads the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen in Beijing and Matthew Pennington in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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