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 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.
SOUTH CHINA SEA EXPECTED TO FEATURE IN TILLERSON MEETINGS IN BEIJING
Tensions in the South China Sea are expected to feature in meetings this week in Beijing between Chinese officials and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Tillerson raised eyebrows during his confirmation hearings in January when he criticized China's construction of man-made islands in the crucial waterway and suggested the U.S. might step in to prevent Beijing from making use of the facilities.
China has reclaimed more than 1,295 hectares (3,200 acres) of land in the South China sea, built airstrips and equipped its new islands with defensive weaponry, mainly in the Spratly Island chain, where five other governments have territorial claims.
The U.S. says the island building doesn't give China any additional territorial rights, and an international arbitration panel in the Hague ruled over the summer against China's historical claim to ownership of waters within the South China Sea. Beijing has ignored the ruling.
Tillerson's statements met with derision from China's state-controlled media, although Beijing's officials made little comment in keeping with their low-key approach toward comments from Trump and his administration that many consider inflammatory.
The State Department said Tillerson would travel to Beijing on Saturday following visits to Tokyo and Seoul. He is expected to meet President Xi Jinping, top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
MAGAZINE ARTICLE LATEST TO RAISE CONCERNS ABOUT POTENTIAL FISHERIES COLLAPSE IN SOUTH CHINA SEA
Recent media reports are raising concerns about overfishing in the South China Sea that could pose as much of a threat to regional stability as tensions over competing territorial claims.
Long known as one of the world's great fisheries, the South China Sea provides employment for 3.7 million people, generates billions of dollars in annual revenue and furnishes a vital source of protein for millions.
However, "after decades of free-for-all fishing, stocks are dwindling, threatening the food security and economic growth of the rapidly developing nations that rely on them," National Geographic magazine said in its March edition.
The article cited Filipino fishermen saying aggressive Chinese actions to enforce its claim to virtually the entire 3.63 million square kilometer (1.4 million square mile) waterbody had driven them from their traditional fishing grounds, impoverishing many.
Despite that, competition for fish has intensified as fishermen venture further from shore looking for a catch, reducing stocks in some waters to less than a tenth of what they had six decades ago, the magazine said. Meanwhile, countries are loath to abide by fishing regulations imposed by others, such as a strict fishing moratorium that China plans to impose in May, since doing so would tacitly grant legitimacy to competing territorial claims.
Illegal fishing methods such as the use of explosives and cyanide to stun fish are worsening the crisis, the magazine said. Still more damaging are China's building of artificial islands by piling sand and cement atop coral reefs and the poaching of protected giant clams by Chinese fishermen that destroy fish habitats, it said.
"What we're looking at is potentially one of the world's worst fisheries collapses ever," the magazine quoted John McManus, a University of Miami marine ecologist who studies reefs in the region, as saying. "We're talking hundreds and hundreds of species that will collapse, and they could collapse relatively quickly, one after another."
CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS CHINA-ASEAN TALKS PRODUCE DRAFT OF CODE OF CONDUCT
Talks between China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have produced a draft version of a long-awaited code of conduct aiming to reduce the potential for conflicts in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters last week.
Wang said progress was made in discussions at the end of February but gave no details at an annual news conference Wednesday on the sidelines of the Chinese legislature's annual 10-day session. Analysts say the agreement is likely to include a crisis management mechanism and touch on the deployment of offensive weapons and the right to freedom of navigation.
Already, a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea reached in 2002 is being "implemented in a full and effective manner," Wang said. That agreement seeks to moderate behavior by committing all parties to "exploring ways for building trust and confidence" on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
Wang also appeared to criticize the U.S. for its naval activities in the area, especially its freedom of navigation missions near to China's man-made islands that have drawn strong condemnations from Beijing.
Should someone try to "make waves and stir trouble, then he will have no support but meet the common opposition of the entire region. China will never allow the hard-won stability to be disrupted again," Wang said.
Despite that, he also held forth the possibility of greater cooperation in the maritime sphere, contingent on the U.S. dropping what China considers a confrontational approach.
"Even between China and the United States, if we change our mindset, then the vast oceans may well become a broad stage for our cooperation," Wang said.
CHINA ANNOUNCES RELATIVELY MODEST BOOST TO DEFENSE BUDGET, SOUTH CHINA SEA EFFECT UNKNOWN
China announced it will raise its defense budget by about 7 percent this year, continuing a trend of lowered growth despite tensions over the South China Sea and other issues.
A finance ministry told The Associated Press that the budget was rising 7 percent to 1.044 trillion yuan ($151 billion) this year, pushing it to its highest level ever, even while the rate of economic growth slows to its lowest this century.
It's unclear what immediate effect the spending increase will have on the situation in the South China Sea, although China is funneling much of its new funding into its air and naval forces, including the construction of as many as four aircraft carriers to join the Liaoning, a flattop purchased from Ukraine and commissioned in 2012 following years of refurbishment.
This year's budget marks the third consecutive year of declines in defense spending growth rates, even while some outside observers say those figures don't account for all military spending. The budget grew by 7.6 percent last year and 10.1 percent in 2015.
That trend reflects a "new normal," acknowledging that Chinese growth is plateauing as a whole, although observers have no doubt that China will continue to add high-tech weaponry according to its long-term strategy.
Seeking a more streamlined fighting force, China plans to complete the cutting of 300,000 military personnel by the end of the year, shifting the emphasis away from the land forces and toward the navy, air and rocket units.
China's defense budget is expected to rise to $233 billion by 2020, almost twice what it was in 2010 and four times what Britain spends, according to a study released in December by IHS Jane's.