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.
AUSTRALIAN NAVY ASSERTS FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION
Australia's prime minister said his country has a "perfect right" to traverse the South China Sea after a media report that the Chinese navy challenged three Australian warships in the hotly contested waterway.
"We maintain and practice the right of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the world ... as is our perfect right in accordance with international law," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Friday. He did not comment on the specific incident when questioned by reporters in London.
Citing anonymous defense officials, Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that the Chinese "challenged" two Australian frigates and an oil replenishment ship this month as the Australian vessels were sailing to Vietnam.
It is not clear what took place during the encounter, which took place while China was conducting its largest-ever naval exercises in the region.
China's Defense Ministry defended its navy's actions, saying that on April 15, ships from the Chinese and Australian navies "encountered each other in the South China Sea."
"The Chinese ships employed professional language in communicating with the Australian side, operated legally and according to regulation, professionally and safely," it said in a statement.
CHINA EXTENDS VISA-FREE TREATMENT FOR HAINAN VISITORS
China is seeking to expand international tourism in its South China Sea island province of Hainan by waiving visas for visitors from 59 countries for monthlong stays.
Long one of China's poorest and most isolated regions, Hainan has been transforming itself into a tropical vacation mecca, while also serving as a strategic outpost in the South China Sea.
The outskirts of the southern resort city of Sanya is home to China's largest submarine base, while other naval and naval air stations are scattered across its 34,000 square kilometers (13,100 square miles) of mountains, jungle and rice paddies.
It also hosts China's newest space launch center, which has attracted a steady stream of tourists.
Hainan also has provincial authority over the city of Sansha, which incorporates the disputed Paracel and Spratly island groups, in which China is building or extending islands to reinforce its sovereignty claims. Travel to those areas is currently restricted to Chinese citizens and it's not clear whether the visa waiver, which takes effect from the start of next month, will extend to them.
The visa waiver applies to tourists from the U.S., Britain and Canada, as well as many Asian nations.
Chinese tourists flock to Hainan during national holidays, but its resorts otherwise lie quiet for much of the year. It also faces stiff competition from established regional tourism industry players such as Thailand, Indonesia's Bali and Hawaii farther to the east.
VIETNAM, INDONESIA COOPERATE ON FISHING VIOLATIONS
Vietnam and Indonesia pledged to work together to resolve fishing violations in the South China Sea as they seek to boost bilateral trade.
While Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea island disputes, Vietnam has been seeking to assert its claims against China's growing encroachment.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, speaking to reporters last Tuesday at a joint briefing with his Vietnamese counterpart, said the two countries would strengthen their partnership, cooperating particularly on fishing and other maritime issues.
"In maritime and fishing cooperation, we agreed on how to conclude the ongoing issues in this regard," Marsudi said. "We have also agreed to try together to complete the demarcation of the exclusive economic zone, because the demarcation of the EEZ between our two countries can enhance the interests of our two peoples as well as ensure security between our two countries."
Since 2014, Indonesia has destroyed several hundred fishing vessels, most of them from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, for violating its waters. The government of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has taken a hard-line stance against illegal fishing, partly driven by the need to show its neighbors that it is in control of its vast territory of 17,000 islands.
Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.