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.
US CARRIER TO MAKE HISTORIC VIETNAM VISIT IN MARCH
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson will reportedly make a historic visit to Vietnam next month as part of the Navy's largest multinational disaster response exercises in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Carl Vinson will be the first U.S. carrier to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, underscoring the new level of cooperation between the former adversaries in the face of China's South China Sea encroachment and other potential threats. Navy officials have declined to give details of the ship's upcoming mission.
The Pacific Partnership 2018 exercises that kicked-off Friday also include the military sealift command hospital ship USNS Mercy, which will visit countries bordering the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, according to a news release.
China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety and has challenged U.S. naval supremacy in the western Pacific.
U.S. officials have said American warships will continue sailing close to Chinese-occupied features without prior notice, placing Washington on a continuing collision course with China's interests.
"JUST MAKE US A (CHINESE) PROVINCE," SAYS PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT DUTERTE
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte jokingly told an audience of mostly Chinese Filipino businessmen that the Philippines could solve its money problems by being turned into a province of wealthy China,
"If you want, just make us a province," Duterte told an audience of applauding Filipino-Chinese businessmen on February 19 that also included Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua.
Duterte erroneously referred to China as "the Republic of China," which is the official name of Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers part of its territory.
He said Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised him that China won't build structures on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, adding that Xi should be trusted because "he's a man of honor."
China took control of uninhabited Scarborough off the northwestern Philippines after a tense standoff in 2012.
In January, China accused the U.S. of trespassing when the guided missile destroyer USS Hopper sailed near the shoal.
China has also relayed to Filipino officials its opposition to the Philippine military's deployment of a Japanese-donated Beechcraft King Air patrol plane in late January to Scarborough, a Philippine official said on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
PHILIPPINE ENVOY TO CHINA WARNS OF GREATER RISK OF US-CHINA
The Philippine ambassador to Beijing has warned of the increased risk of a "miscalculation" and armed conflict in the South China Sea with a militarily stronger China now able to challenge the United States.
Chito Sta. Romana said Feb. 19 the balance of power was shifting with the two global powers vying for control of the waters. He urged that the Philippines not get entangled in the increasingly tense maritime rivalry.
"Whereas before the South China Sea was dominated by the U.S. 7th Fleet, now the Chinese navy is starting to challenge the dominance," Sta. Romana told a news forum in Manila. "I think we will see a shift in the balance of power."
"It is not the case that the South China Sea is now a Chinese lake, not at all," Sta. Romana said, pointing to the continued U.S. Navy presence in the area.
He compared the two powers to elephants fighting and trampling on the grass and said, "What we don't want is for us to be the grass."
Duterte's policy of befriending China has worked, Sta. Romana said, citing Beijing's decision to lift its blockade around Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippine military can now freely send new supplies to Filipino marines guarding the disputed area.
Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.