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.
CHINA TESTS U.S. BY SNATCHING NAVY GLIDER OFF PHILIPPINES
Just days after Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, warned that the U.S. would not back down from challenging Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, a Chinese warship snatched an underwater Navy glider that was collecting scientific data about 50 nautical miles (93 kilometers) northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said a navy lifeboat discovered and investigated an unknown device to "prevent it from posing a danger to the safe navigation of passing ships and personnel." He said it will be returned, but accused the U.S. of sending ships to conduct "military surveying."
"China is resolutely opposed to this and requests the U.S. stop such activities," he said. "China will continue to maintain vigilance against the relevant U.S. activities and will take necessary measures to deal with them."
The USNS Bowditch, a civilian U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship, was recovering two of the gliders on Thursday when the Chinese ship approached and sent out a small boat that took one of the gliders, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis. He said this may be the first time in recent history that China has taken a U.S. naval vessel in international waters.
The incident underscores China's unwavering resolve in protecting its vast claims in the South China Sea — even well inside another claimant's 200-mile exclusive economic zone. It also challenges the U.S. emphasis on freedom of navigation.
The Philippines, which has a defense treaty with the U.S. and a president who doesn't want to antagonize China, said the drone seizure was a matter between Washington and Beijing. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said his government was not aware the U.S. was using underwater drones in the South China Sea.
President-elect Donald Trump on Sunday weighed in with a tweet: "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back. let them keep it!"
U.S. PACIFIC COMMANDER: AMERICA WON'T ALLOW CLOSING OF SOUTH CHINA SEA
The commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific Adm. Harry Harris said that America will never allow access to international waters to be closed down unilaterally — "no matter how many bases are built on artificial features in the South China Sea."
"I say this often but it's worth repeating — we will cooperate where we can and be ready to confront where we must," Harris said in a speech to the Lowy Institute For International Policy in Sydney.
He said that both China and Russia "can choose to disregard the rules-based international order or they can contribute to it as responsible stakeholders."
The U.S. and Australia must maintain credible combat power, have resolve to confront any adversary and defend their allies against both aggression and coercion, and expand their partnerships "outside the confines of the old U.S. hub-and-spoke alliance model," he said.
"We will continue to exercise and protect our rights on the high seas, in the air, in space, and in cyber wherever international law allows," Harris said, calling reports of America's abandonment of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region "greatly exaggerated."
He also said he had signed a 2017 agreement for Australia to host the fifth-generation F-22 Raptor fighter jet, in what Euan Graham, the Lowy Institute's director of international security, said was "pretty high-end coercive signaling to China."
China's Foreign Ministry responded to Harris' speech by urging Washington to keep its promise not to take a position on South China Sea disputes. Spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters that the situation in the South China Sea is "tending toward stability" and "moving in a good direction."
CHINA DEFENDS PLACING WEAPONS ON MAN-MADE ISLANDS
China has defended putting weapons on its artificial islands in the South China Sea as an "appropriate" measure to counter any attacks, after satellite imagery purportedly revealed anti-aircraft guns and suspected missile defense systems on all seven outposts.
The weapons would be last line of defense against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against the seven man-made islands in the disputed waters, said the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which commissioned the photos.
China's Defense Ministry said that defensive measures were "appropriate and legal."
"For example, were someone to be threatening you with armed force outside your front door, would you not get ready even a slingshot?" the ministry said.
Since 2013, the dredging and construction on the islands has proceeded at a breathtaking speed. Photographs posted by the People's Liberation Army Daily on Chinese social media this month show a soccer game on a grass field in front of a brand new hospital building where workers and uniformed troops are standing in formation. Other pictures show a lighthouse, gardens and modern hospital equipment. Residents also have access to 4G cellular networks.
PHILIPPINES TO ACQUIRE 2 U.S. RADAR SYSTEMS
Despite tensions over President Rodrigo Duterte's human rights record, the U.S. State Department has approved the possible sale of two Sea Giraffe surveillance radars worth $25 million to the Philippines, which is seeking to improve its maritime intelligence and surveillance.
The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency has submitted a certification to the U.S. Congress, which reviews all proposals to sell American defense equipment.
The radars can be installed on two of three decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters that were transferred to the Philippine navy and are used to patrol the South China Sea.
THIRD U.S. WARSHIP VISITS VIETNAM
In a sign of rapidly improving relations, the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin became the third Navy warship this year to dock in Cam Ranh, an American air and naval base during the Vietnam War.
Two others ships visited in October, the first time since the two former foes normalized ties 21 years ago.
The U.S. has been strengthening military ties with Vietnam, which is locked in a territorial dispute with China in both the Paracel and the Spratly islands.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Tran Van Minh in Hanoi, Vietnam, contributed to this report.
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