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 WARNS US
China says it dispatched warships to identify and warn off a pair of U.S. Navy vessels sailing near one of its island claims in the South China Sea.
A statement on the Defense Ministry's website said the Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam entered waters China claims in the Paracel island group "without the permission of the Chinese government."
It said the Chinese military "immediately dispatched warships to identify and inspect the American ships according to law, and warned them to depart."
China has controlled the Paracels entirely since violently seizing Vietnam's holdings in the area in 1974. Called "Xisha" in Chinese, the islands have been incorporated into the southern province of Hainan and are being developed for tourism, as well as being equipped with weapon systems meant to enforce China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea.
China earlier this month landed bomber aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons on its main base at Woody Island in the Paracels.
The U.S. military does not comment on the specifics of what it calls "freedom of navigation" exercises meant to assert the Navy's right to sail and operate in any zone deemed legal under international law.
CHINA LANDS ON CARRIER
China says navy pilots aboard the country's sole operating aircraft carrier have completed their first nighttime takeoffs and landings.
The missions were hailed by state media as a major step in boosting the combat capabilities of the Liaoning, which was bought as a mostly empty hull from Ukraine and commissioned in 2012 along with its flight wing.
The Liaoning operates some two dozen J-15 fighter jets developed from Russian Sukhoi models.
Nighttime missions on aircraft carriers are considered far more difficult and dangerous than those conducted in daytime.
Beijing says aircraft carriers are needed to protect its coastline and trade routes, although they are also seen as backing up Beijing's claims to self-governing Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The Liaoning took part last month in China's largest-ever fleet review, which included 48 ships, 76 helicopters, fighter jets, bombers, and more than 10,000 personnel.
That drill was followed by live-fire military exercises on China's side of the Taiwan Strait.
US WITHDRAWS INVITATION
The Pentagon withdrew its invitation for China to participate in a multinational naval exercise the U.S. is hosting this summer, in what it called "an initial response" to China's militarization of the South China Sea.
The Pentagon cited strong evidence that China has deployed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems and electronic jammers to contested areas in the Spratly Islands. It called on China to remove these systems.
"China's continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea only serve to raise tensions and destabilize the region," a Pentagon spokesman, Marine Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, said.
The Pentagon also cited its objections to China's recent landing of bomber aircraft at Woody Island.
The U.S. had included China in the past two versions of the naval exercise known as Rim of the Pacific, or RimPac, in 2014 and 2016.
China's foreign minister said China had a right to take whatever measures it deemed fit on its island holdings, and the defense ministry criticized the U.S. move as "unconstructive," saying it would do nothing to change China's resolve to "play a role in maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region."