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 developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
US NAVY READIES MORE FREQUENT MISSIONS
A U.S. administration official said the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group in the South China Sea, less than a month after President Donald Trump took office, signaled U.S. intent to have a more active naval presence in the region.
The Pentagon says that the Carl Vinson, accompanied by a guided-missile destroyer and aircraft, began "routine operations" in the South China Sea on Feb. 18. It last deployed to the Western Pacific in 2015 when it conducted an exercise with the Malaysian navy and air force.
The official declined to comment on whether the Carl Vinson would undertake a freedom of navigation operation, but noted that senior administration figures have spoken about the importance of asserting that right. The official expected such operations to be undertaken frequently by U.S. vessels.
The official requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists on the administration's policy.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Navy periodically sailed close to disputed territories on so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, but faces calls to step up the tempo in response to China's massive campaign of land reclamation and construction of seven artificial islands.
During his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson stirred controversy by comparing China's island-building and deployment of military assets to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, and suggesting China's access to the island should not be allowed.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, however, has stressed the importance of diplomacy in resolving disputes in the South China Sea rather than military maneuvers. He has said the U.S. will exercise freedom of navigation in international waters.
SATELLITE IMAGES APPEAR TO SHOW SAM STRUCTURES ON ISLANDS
Recent images by the Center for Strategic and International Studies appear to show that China has nearly completed structures for surface-to-air missiles on the three largest man-made islands in the South China Sea.
Satellite imagery taken on Nov. 2 and again on Feb. 7 of Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs purportedly show eight of the buildings being constructed on each of the three outposts, according to the think tank. The suspicion is they may be used for HQ-9 SAM missiles that China has already deployed on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago.
CSIS says China appears to have begun construction on the buildings between late September and early November.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said his government was "carrying out normal facility construction, including deploying necessary and appropriate national defense facilities, on its own territory." He said that China is "exercising a right bestowed by international law to sovereign states."
PHILIPPINES-LED ASEAN TALKS RAISE CONCERN OVER CHINA'S MILITARIZATION
The Philippines led Southeast Asian nations in expressing concern over China's weapons systems on man-made islands in comments criticized by Beijing, which also abruptly canceled a trade delegation to Manila.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, after hosting counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations, said they want to prevent the militarization of the South China Sea, calling it a "great concern," by moving forward with a long-delayed effort to draft rules for avoiding conflict in the disputed waters.
Although saying it favors negotiating a Code of Conduct with ASEAN in the South China Sea, Beijing has dragged its feet for years, apparently avoiding having its hands tied while it built artificial islands with runways and military installations. Representatives from China and ASEAN will meet in the Indonesian resort of Bali on Monday to discuss the way forward.
Yasay said he was confident a framework agreement could be finalized by mid-year "on the basis of the fact that everyone, including all of the ASEAN member states and China are pushing hard for this."
But he cautioned that whether, in fact, China will cooperate "we cannot say for now."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing that Yasay's remarks about China's militarization of the islands are "baffling and regrettable."
"Such comments were only his opinion and do not represent the view of ASEAN as a whole," Geng said, adding they also appeared to contradict agreements reached between Presidents Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte on improving Chinese-Philippine relations.
China also canceled a scheduled visit by Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng to witness the signing of trade agreements in Manila. Geng said the meeting was postponed due to scheduling reasons. President Rodrigo Duterte said that China may have misunderstood Yasay.
China and the Philippines, long at loggerheads over who owns the South China Sea islands, have moved to mend ties since Duterte took office last June. Yasay said after the ASEAN meeting last week that Chinese structures, already in place on seven man-made islands, could be removed only by force and "this is something that we will not engage ourselves in."
PHILIPPINES SAY XI PROMISED NOT TO BUILD ON DISPUTED SHOAL
According to the Philippine foreign secretary, Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised not to turn the disputed Scarborough Shoal into another Chinese military outpost.
The fate of Scarborough — a tiny, uninhabited reef that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 — has been driving the South China disputes. A year after Chinese vessels took control of the shoal after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels, the Philippines initiated an international arbitration that ruled against China's maritime claims, but which Beijing refuses to recognize. The Philippines also has a defense pact with the U.S. and is counting on Washington to step in should China attempt to expand the shoal and build military installations close to Manila.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said any Chinese construction in Scarborough Shoal would be "a very serious, provocative act" that would undermine the Philippine claim to the rich fishing area.
"If they would do that, that will really be a game-changer," Yasay said, adding that Xi told the Philippine leader during their meetings in Beijing last year that China had no plans to build on Scarborough.
Xi also made a promise to former President Barack Obama not to militarize the islands last September, but Chinese officials say that placing defensive weapons does not constitute militarization.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
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