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, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
PHILIPPINE OFFICIALS VISIT ISLAND, IRKING CHINA
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Ano flew to the island of Pag-asa in the South China Sea on Saturday, drawing a protest from China, which also claims the remote territory.
The Philippine government reiterated its claim to the island, where Filipino troops and villagers have lived for decades in a tiny community amid islands claimed by multiple countries.
The public argument came amid a thaw in once-frosty relations between the neighbors after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office last June. Duterte has moved to rekindle Manila’s friendship with Beijing and court Chinese state-sponsored investment for railways and other much-needed investment projects.
The two Philippine officials traveled with dozens of journalists to inspect an eroded airstrip that the Philippine government plans to reinforce and lengthen. The government plans to build a dock starting next month to accommodate ships with construction materials, Lorenzana said.
About 1.6 billion pesos ($32 million) has been earmarked for the construction work, including a fishing port, solar power generators, a water desalination plant, improved housing for soldiers and facilities for marine research and tourism.
Pag-asa is internationally known as Thitu island and is called Zhongye island by China. It’s the second-largest island in the South China Sea’s hotly contested Spratlys archipelago.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China was “gravely concerned about and dissatisfied” by the island visit, adding that China “has lodged representations with the Philippine side.”
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has aggressively tried to fortify its foothold by transforming seven mostly submerged reefs into island outposts.
CHINA TO HOST PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT, OTHERS AT SUMMIT
China will host Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and 27 other world leaders at a summit next month showcasing President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative. Only a few heads of state from Western industrialized democracies will attend, however.
Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy are among those slated to appear at the summit, which aims to consolidate support for Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” program to stitch together the Eurasian continent with infrastructure investment.
That includes a push to draw Southeast Asian nations further into China’s economic and political order, despite territorial feuding over the South China Sea.
The May 14-15 summit is seen as a measure of China’s international prestige at a time when Xi has positioned China as a rising outward-looking regional power. That has drawn particular attention because of questions over President Donald Trump’s “America first” push to remove the U.S. from trade agreements and other international entanglements.
China has sought to frame Xi’s vision for the China-led development program as an inclusive, mutually beneficial project rather than a statement of geopolitical ambitions that should arouse Western suspicions. The program aims to build roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure along the ancient Silk Road’s maritime and overland routes with close to $100 billion in funding.
USS CARL VINSON, S. KOREA NAVY TO HOLD EXERCISES
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Monday that South Korean naval ships will conduct training exercises with the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson, as tensions surrounding the Korean Peninsula continue to eclipse those in the South China Sea.
North Korea marks the founding anniversary of its military on Tuesday, and South Korea and its allies are bracing for the possibility that it could conduct another nuclear test or launch an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time.
North Korea often marks significant dates by displaying its military capability. It so far has conducted five nuclear tests.
Trump spoke by phone with both the Japanese and Chinese leaders Monday. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV quoted China’s president, Xi Jinping, as telling Trump that China strongly opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and hopes “all parties will exercise restraint and avoid aggravating the situation.”
The Carl Vinson had been visiting Singapore when U.S. officials earlier this month announced it had been dispatched to waters off the Korean Peninsula in an apparent show of force in response to North Korean moves.
It has been making its way to the Sea of Japan since then, making stops in Asia along the way.
While the U.S. has dispatched what Trump called an “armada” of ships to the region, including the aircraft carrier, U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that the administration doesn’t intend to militarily respond to a North Korean nuclear or missile test.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.