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.
AUSTRALIA, SOUTHEAST ASIA CALL FOR SEA RESTRAINT
Southeast Asian leaders and Australia's prime minister called for non-militarization and a code of conduct in the contested waters of the South China Sea, where China has become increasingly assertive.
A joint statement was issued Sunday by leaders at the first summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to be held in Australia, underscoring Canberra's growing involvement in regional security issues, despite China's opposition.
"We emphasize the importance of non-militarization and the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may complicate the situation," the statement said.
China and the five countries that have conflicting territorial claims over the South China Sea, including four ASEAN members, have been moving ahead in negotiations for a code of conduct for the busy waterway aimed at reducing the risks of armed confrontations in the contested areas.
The ASEAN nations are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
China has yet to comment on the statement, but in past has strongly opposed what it considers intervention by outside players such as the U.S., Japan and Australia, in affairs related to the South China Sea.
U.S. PACIFIC CHIEF WARNS OF EMBOLDENED XI JINPING
The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific warned that the removal of term limits to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely could be a harbinger of Beijing's direction and the strategic threat it poses to America.
Adm. Harry Harris voiced concern at a congressional hearing over the constitutional change endorsed by the rubber-stamp parliament, saying it indicated the kind of country China is becoming. He adopted a tougher stance than the White House, which has declined to weigh in on the issue.
Harris, who is President Donald Trump's nominee to become ambassador to Australia, said China seeks regional hegemony and wants to push America out. He said China's development of hypersonic glide weapons and stealth fighter jets pose a significant threat to the U.S. He also expressed concern about China's militarization of islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, and its acquisition of icebreaker ships even though it has no Arctic border.
"China has taken advantage of our openness," Harris told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Our hope in the past has been that if we bring China into organizations like the World Trade Organization and include China in our military exercises and the like, and that somehow China will become like us."
SINGAPORE PM EMPHASIZES FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in response to questions from Australian media that freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea is a "vital interest" for both countries.
"Like Australia, Singapore depends on a peaceful and stable region which supports and promotes free trade and open markets. We share similar outlooks on the importance of international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes," Lee said. "We both have a vital interest in freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. We should continue to uphold these principles."
Countries can help maintain stability in the area by "observing international law and international norms, and agreeing to rules which minimize the risk of incidents and escalation," Lee said.
He also said many countries, including Australia and most ASEAN members, "support and welcome" the U.S.'s firm position on navigation and overflight freedoms. Those are expressed through regular U.S. Navy missions to sail by nearby islands claimed by China, prompting protests from Beijing.
JAPAN, US HOLD ANTI-SUB EXERCISES
U.S. and Japanese naval forces took part in anti-submarine drills in the South China Sea earlier this month.
The aircraft carrier USS Vinson and its strike group were accompanied by the Japanese destroyer JS Ise and its three anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
The U.S. Navy said operations also included formation steaming and replenishment-at-sea. It said the exercises began March 11 and quoted strike group commander Rear Adm. John Fuller as saying, "Strong maritime partnerships maintain security, stability and prosperity, which the Indo-Pacific region has enjoyed for more than 70 years.
"Collaborating with a close maritime partner promotes regional cooperation," Fuller said.
The Carl Vinson recently completed the first visit to a Vietnamese port since the end of the Vietnam War.
Submarines are seen as a key component in any future conflict in the South China Sea.
Associated Press writer Trevor Marshallsea in Sydney and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.