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.
SE ASIA, CHINA AGREE TO TALKS ON "CODE OF CONDUCT"
Leaders of Southeast Asian countries and China have agreed to launch talks on a "code of conduct" aimed at controlling disputes in the South China Sea, a step they described as a milestone, but which some experts said was unlikely to bring concrete results.
The agreement reached during a two-day summit last week in the Philippines comes more than 15 years after the adoption of a preliminary Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has yet to be fully implemented.
A separate statement issued after a meeting between leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that the approval in August of a framework for the code of conduct was "an important milestone," and that both sides anticipated an early conclusion of the agreement.
What form that agreement will take is still undetermined. China opposes international arbitration over its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, and doesn't want to see a future code of conduct given legal weight. Southeast Asian diplomats said even ASEAN is not unanimous in seeking a binding set of rules.
Gregory Poling, a South China Sea expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said China was well aware that the agreement would be unlikely to result in a framework for managing sensitive issues such as fisheries depletion, oil and gas development and coast guard cooperation.
"It took 15 years to negotiate a one-page outline that just restated the exact same thing they're going to do with DOC," he said, referring to the 2002 declaration.
China, Taiwan and four ASEAN member states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — have overlapping claims in the waterway, which straddles busy international sea lanes and potentially has vast undersea deposits of oil and gas.
The U.S. is not a claimant but has declared it has a national interest in ensuring that the disputes are resolved peacefully in accordance with international law and that freedom of navigation and overflight are guaranteed. China has opposed what it calls U.S. meddling in an Asian dispute.
CHINA HALTS AIRPORT RECLAMATION PROJECT
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper said authorities had ordered a halt to land reclamation work intended to expand the airport at the southern Chinese resort city of Sanya.
The paper said the project to build an artificial island next to the Sanya coral reef national nature was ordered to stop by the State Oceanic Administration, after complaints that it had not passed an environmental impact assessment.
The paper said the environmental group Friends of Nature has warned that the project threatens the sea floor ecosystem, particularly coral reefs in the area.
Boasting long stretches of beach looking out onto the South China Sea, Sanya has been heavily developed over the past two decades as a tropical vacation destination for Chinese and foreign tourists. The new airport on the 26-square-kilometer (10-square-mile) artificial island would be able to handle 60 million passengers per year.
China has been accused of causing serious damage to the natural environment in the South China Sea, especially ocean fisheries, through its construction of artificial islands atop coral reefs in the disputed Spratly island group.
The U.S. and others have accused Beijing of further militarizing the region and altering geography to bolster its claims. China says the seven man-made islands in the Spratlys, which are equipped with airstrips and military installations, are mainly for civilian purposes and to boost safety for fishing and maritime trade.
CHINESE SUBMERISIBLE TO EXPLORE SEA RESOURCES
China is preparing to launch a new manned submersible to explore resources in the South China Sea.
The official Xinhua News Agency said the Shenhai Yongshi, or "deep sea warrior," has passed all performance and safety tests, including a dive of 4,500 meters (about 15,000 feet) last month.
"Shenhai Yongshi will be used in the South China Sea and help explore the biological and mineral resources in the deep sea," the official Global Times newspaper quoted Chen Xiangmao, a research fellow at the National Institute for the South China Sea, as saying.
Eight years in development, the submersible will join China's currently operating deep sea exploration vessel, the Jialong, which has conducted dives in the deepest part of the world's oceans, the Mariana Trench.
Along with key shipping lanes used to transport some $5 trillion in goods annually, the South China Sea contains rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea oil and gas.
China and Vietnam have previously clashed over resource exploration in the South China Sea, and China's parking of an oil rig off Vietnam's central coast in 2014 sparked confrontations at sea and deadly anti-China riots within the country.