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, the location of several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
CHINA'S LIAONING AIRCRAFT CARRIER HEADED SOUTH ON TRAINING EXERCISE
China's sole aircraft carrier is headed south on a training exercise that will take it into Hong Kong for the first time.
The 60,000-ton Liaoning left its home port June 25 along with the destroyers Jinan and Yinchuan for what was described as a weeks-long, transregional training mission.
A report on the defense ministry website said its complement of J-15 jet fighters and helicopters have been conducting flight training along its voyage. According to the official Xinhua News Agency on Monday, the mission aims to "strengthen coordination among the vessels and improve the skills of crew and pilots in different marine regions."
A highlight of the mission will be the flotilla's port call in Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army garrison's presence in the semi-autonomous Chinese city and former British colony.
Though no official date has been announced, the Liaoning is expected to arrive on Friday.
While U.S. and other visiting sailors tend to gravitate toward the city's Wanchai nightlife district, the PLA navy says its officers and soldiers will be attending "various exchanges and activities with Hong Kong residents and the PLA garrison." The ships will also be open for visits by the public.
The Liaoning has exercised in the South China Sea, although Beijing has been vague on what role it intends it to ultimately play.
CHINA PROTESTS LATEST US FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION OPERATION NEAR TRITON ISLAND
China's foreign ministry is strongly protesting the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Stethem's sailing within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of tiny Triton island, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Spokesman Lu Kang said China dispatched naval ships and fighter planes Sunday to "warn off the U.S. vessel."
Washington's move "violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China's sovereignty, disrupted peace, security and order of the relevant waters ... and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation.
"The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security," Lu said.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet had no comment on China's statement or any specifics of the Stethem's operations.
Triton lies in the Paracel island group, north of the Spratlys, where China has conducted massive land reclamation activities on seven reefs and atolls.
A U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to speak by name and requested anonymity, said the Stethem conducted a routine "right of innocent passage" exercise on Sunday. Under international law, warships are allowed to pass through another country's territorial waters as long as they do not stop or carry out military activities.
Such freedom of navigation operation missions are used to bolster the argument that nations cannot claim that prior notice is required before passing through territorial waters as allowed under international agreement.
Chinese law, however, requires that foreign military vessels receive China's permission before passing through its territorial waters.
US, PHILIPPINE SHIPS CONDUCT JOIN ANTI-KIDNAPPING PATROLS IN SULU SEA
U.S. and Philippine navy ships have patrolled waters in the southern Philippines where kidnappings by ransom-seeking Abu Sayyaf militants have sparked a regional security alarm.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson said a Navy combat ship, the USS Coronado, and the Philippine navy frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz completed the four-day patrol at the Sulu Sea on Saturday, adding that the operation was carried out at the request of the Philippine government.
The coordinated patrol, which was aimed at detecting and deterring threats, "was safe and routine," Abrahamson said.
Abu Sayyaf gunmen have kidnapped crewmen from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam on board passing tugboats and cargo ships and held them for ransom on southern Sulu and outlying islands in recent years. The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have agreed to take steps to deter and stop the threats in the busy waters.
CHINA PLEDGES MORE AID FOR PHILIPPINES AS FORMER ANTAGONISTS SEEK PRACTICAL COOPERATION
China's foreign minister told his Philippine counterpart Thursday that Beijing is ready to provide more aid to the Southeast Asian country, as ties between the former antagonists continue to improve.
Beijing last week donated emergency aid, sniper rifles and other weaponry to help the Philippine military drive out Muslim rebels who overran the southern city of Marawi.
At a news conference Thursday in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the sides would "continue to improve our mutual trust and control our differences so as to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea."
Separately, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian appeared to indicate that the shipment of arms delivered on Wednesday was only a start.
"The Chinese side has always opposed firmly any form of terrorism and opposes any person who carries out or supports terrorist activities under any name," Geng said at a monthly news briefing.
"We stand ready to work with regional countries including the Philippines to step up counterterrorism operations against violent terrorist threats," he said.
AP writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.