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.
INDIA, FRANCE BOOST INDIAN OCEAN TIES
India and France have pledged to work together to ensure freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean amid China's increasing presence in the area.
Among agreements reached after talks Saturday in New Delhi between French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the space agencies of the two countries signed an accord to help them detect, identify and monitor sea vessels.
Modi said it was critical for the two countries to cooperate in the Indian Ocean region.
"Both our countries believe that for world peace, progress and prosperity in the future, the Indian Ocean region is going to play a very important role," he said.
The United States considers India a critical anchor in a regional strategy for the Indian and Pacific Oceans to blunt an increasingly assertive China. India is rallying support of countries including France and Australia on the maritime security front.
France has three Indian Ocean territories — Reunion, Mayotte and the French Southern and Antarctic Lands — comprising a total of almost 1 million French citizens and commanding a large exclusive economic zone.
In 2016, India signed an $8.78 billion deal with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in "ready to fly" condition, meaning they will be made in France.
CHINA: S. CHINA SEA ISLANDS NEED DEFENSIVE CAPABILITY
A leading Chinese general says the country needs to build defensive structures on islands in the South China Sea to display its claim to sovereignty over virtually the entire crucial waterway.
However, the vice president of China's Academy of Military Sciences, Lt. Gen. He Lei, declined to comment Thursday on aircraft deployments on artificial islands Chinese has built in the area, saying those were entirely China's domestic affair.
Earlier Thursday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared to blame the U.S. and its allies for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, which is claimed in all or in part by China and five other governments. He said China had been working with other claimants and its Southeast Asian neighbors on completing a code of conduct to prevent frictions in the waterway, which has rich fishing grounds, vital sea routes and a potential wealth of undersea natural resources.
"Some outside forces are not happy with the prevailing calm, and try to stir up trouble and muddle the waters. Their frequent show of force with fully armed aircraft and naval vessels is the most destabilizing factor in the region," Wang said at a news conference on the sidelines of the annual meeting of China's ceremonial parliament.
In other remarks, he defended China's 8.1 percent increase in its defense budget, which brings it to 1.1 trillion yuan ($173 billion).
Years of double-digit percentage growth have given China the world's second-largest defense budget after the United States, which is in a class of its own with a proposed budget of $716 billion for next year.
US CARRIER VISITS VIETNAM FOR FIRST TIME SINCE WAR
A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier paid a visit to a Vietnamese port for the first time since the Vietnam War, seeking to bolster both countries' efforts to stem expansionism by China in the South China Sea.
Last week's visit by the USS Carl Vinson brought more than 5,000 crew members to the central coastal city of Danang, the largest such U.S. military presence in Vietnam since the Southeast Asian nation was unified under Communist leadership after the war ended in 1975.
The Carl Vinson, accompanied by a cruiser and a destroyer, visited as China increases its military buildup in the Paracel islands and seven artificial islands in the Spratlys in maritime territory also claimed by Vietnam. China claims most of the South China Sea and has challenged traditional U.S. naval supremacy in the western Pacific.
Vietnam, while traditionally wary of its huge northern neighbor, shares China's system of single-party rule and intolerance for political dissent.
BEIJING UNHAPPY WITH US CARRIER'S VIETNAM VISIT
A Chinese Communist Party newspaper said Beijing was unhappy with the first visit by a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to a Vietnamese port since the Vietnam War and was monitoring developments.
However, the Global Times said the USS Carl Vinson's visit was unlikely to alter the balance of power in the South China Sea, which China claims virtually in its entirety and has been fortifying with military structures on man-made islands.
"China's vigilance and unhappiness are inevitable, but we don't think that the USS Carl Vinson's Vietnam trip can stir up troubles in the South China Sea," the paper, known for its hard-line nationalist views, said in an editorial.
The visit "will not generate any special tools to pressure China," while the U.S. sending warships to the South China Sea will "only waste money," the paper said.
"The U.S. is free to send warships to the South China Sea, which will only waste money. China is much less interested in the USS Carl Vinson's Vietnam visit than American and Vietnamese nationalists," it said.
Vietnam and China have extensive overlapping claims to islands and resources in the sea, and U.S. officials say the port call is a sign of the U.S. commitment to the region and U.S.-Vietnam ties.
Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that China's island building and militarization "cause angst within the region. And the angst that it causes is really because of lack of transparency."
Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma in New Delhi and Tran Van Minh in Danang, Vietnam, contributed to this report.