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 SENDS BOMBERS
China's air force says it recently sent some of its most advanced fighters and bombers for "joint combat patrols" over the South China Sea.
Spokesman for the People's Liberation Army Air Force Shen Jinke was quoted on Sunday as saying that the planes involved included H-6K long-range strategic bombers. The bombers are considered "standoff" weapons that carry the DH-20 land-attack cruise missile, giving it the ability to hit targets as far away as Australia.
Russia and the U.S. are currently the only other countries able to launch cruise missiles from the air.
Since entering service, the H-6K has flown multiple training missions over the western Pacific and patrols over the South China Sea.
Shen said Su-35 fighter jets and other aircraft he did not identify also flew in the patrols. The Russian-made Su-35 has greatly enhanced China's ability to conduct operations at greater distances and its pilots have grown increasingly proficient through training under actual combat conditions, according to Shen's statement posted on the air force's official microblog.
Shen also said the air force recently sent H-6K bombers and Russian-made S-30 fighters through the Miyako Strait north of Taiwan for combat training in the western Pacific.
CHINA PROTESTS US SHIP
China has protested to the U.S. over its sending of a guided missile destroyer into waters near Chinese-claimed territory, saying it dispatched two vessels of its own to warn the ship off.
The USS Mustin "arbitrarily entered waters surrounding islands and reefs in the South China Sea," Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang was quoted as saying on Friday by the official Xinhua News Agency.
The incident constitutes a "serious political and military provocation," Ren was quoted as saying. Such actions "harm military relations between the two countries, causing close encounters between the countries' air forces and navies, which could lead to misjudgment and even accidents," he said.
The Pentagon generally declines to comment on such freedom of navigation operations, known as "FONOPs," aimed at asserting the U.S. military's right to sail, fly and operate anywhere that is legal under international law.
The U.S. does not take a stance on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but has strongly criticized China's building of man-made islands equipped with airfields and other military infrastructure.
FRENCH FONOP REPORT
A report says the French navy declined to either confirm or deny that one of its surveillance frigates conducted a freedom of navigation operation while transiting the South China Sea.
The website Navy Recognition said Friday the Vendemiaire, home-ported in the French territory of New Caledonia, is on a two-month cruise in the area that has included a joint operation with the USS Murphy, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
It said that included the establishment of a data link and secure communications and the deployment of a joint visit, board, search and seizure team often used in anti-piracy or anti-smuggling operations.
The French ship also make a visit to Brunei, where it conducted a joint search and rescue drill, helicopter operations and other maneuvers, the website said.
China regularly criticized U.S. FONOPs but has remained largely quiet about similar missions by ships and aircraft from other countries.
PHILIPPINE -CHINA'GOLDEN PERIOD'
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano hailed a "golden period" in his country's relations with China despite differences over the South China Sea, amid discussions over possible joint development projects in the disputed waters.
Cayetano made the remarks in Beijing on Wednesday after meeting with his counterpart Wang Yi, who said offshore oil and gas exploration were among issues discussed.
China and the Philippines have long tussled over islands and reefs in the South China Sea and since taking office in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a hard line on issues of sovereignty.
Kicking off his second five-year term on Tuesday, Xi declared in a fervently nationalistic address to the ceremonial legislature that China would never cede "one inch" of its territory.
China rejected an international tribunal's 2016 ruling invalidating much of its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines.
Cayetano also said the Philippines' China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte will attend the Boao regional economic forum on China's South China Sea island province of Hainan next month. He said the Philippines looks forward to welcoming Xi for a state visit at a time to be determined.
Associated Press writer Yanan Wang contributed to this report.