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 key developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
SINGAPORE SAYS CHINESE NEWSPAPER “FABRICATED” REPORT
Singapore accused a nationalist Chinese state-run newspaper of fabricating details in a news report that it said falsely depicted the city-state’s conduct at a recent summit in Venezuela.
The Global Times report, published on its Chinese-language website, said that Singapore requested that the final document of the 17th Non-Aligned Movement summit include an endorsement for an international arbitration panel’s July ruling favoring the Philippines in its dispute with China over the South China Sea. The report cited unnamed sources it said “had knowledge of the situation.”
The report said that most of the countries objected to the Singaporean delegation’s request, angering the delegation. The newspaper said the delegation also spoke rudely to those countries’ officials.
The report triggered an unusually public dispute between Singapore’s ambassador to China and the chief editor of the tabloid newspaper, which is published by the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily. The outspoken paper targets a domestic audience for whom nationalistic appeals resonate strongly.
In an open letter to the Global Times’ editor-in-chief, the ambassador, Stanley Loh, said that the report “attributed actions and words to Singapore which are false and unfounded.”
In the letter, Loh said that “the proposal to update the Southeast Asia paragraphs in the NAM Final Document was not done at the last minute nor by any single ASEAN country. There was a common and united ASEAN position.”
It said that Singapore was “disappointed that an established newspaper published this irresponsible report replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts,” and noted that Singapore was represented at the summit, while China was not.
The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, stood his ground against Loh’s accusations, saying that the report “was based on a serious and reliable source who attended the summit,” according to the newspaper.
The ambassador wrote a second letter aimed at refuting Hu’s response.
Singapore doesn’t have any claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea and its officials say it is interested in safeguarding the stability of the region’s waterways.
PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT SAYS HE’LL END JOINT DRILLS WITH U.S.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he was giving notice to the United States, his country’s long-standing ally, that joint exercises between Filipino and American troops this week will be the last such drills.
He told the Filipino community in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, last week that he will maintain the military alliance with the U.S. because of the countries’ 1951 defense treaty. But he said this week’s exercises will proceed only because he did not want to embarrass his defense secretary.
Duterte said during a two-day visit to meet Vietnam’s leaders that he wants to establish new trade and commercial alliances with China and Russia, and that the war games were something Beijing does not want.
“I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise,” he said. “Jointly, Philippines-U.S., the last one.”
His foreign secretary quickly said the decision was not final. Such a step would impede Washington’s plans to expand the footprint of U.S. forces in Southeast Asia to counter China.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila said Washington had not been formally notified by the Philippines of any cancellation of combat drills after this week’s maneuvers, called Phiblex. The Philippine Defense Department has yet to clarify Duterte’s remarks.
The previous Philippine government signed a 2014 defense pact to give the U.S. forces access to five Philippine military bases. That reflected Manila’s anxiety over the territorial ambitions of China, with which it has competing claims in the disputed South China Sea.
Duterte, however, said Sunday that the accord was only signed by the Philippine defense chief then and not by the president, suggesting the accord can still be pushed back.
DEFENSE CHIEF SAYS U.S. TO “SHARPEN OUR MILITARY EDGE” IN ASIA
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the U.S. will “sharpen our military edge” in Asia and the Pacific in order to remain a dominant power in a region feeling the effects of China’s rising military might.
Carter made the pledge in a speech aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in port in San Diego.
The Pentagon chief described what he called the next phase of a U.S. pivot to Asia — a rebalancing of American security commitments after years of heavy focus on the Middle East.
His speech was aimed at reassuring allies unsettled by China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
With a broad complaint that China is “sometimes behaving aggressively,” Carter alluded to Beijing’s building of artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“Beijing sometimes appears to want to pick and choose which principles it wants to benefit from and which it prefers to try to undercut,” he said. “For example, the universal right to freedom of navigation that allows China’s ships and aircraft to transit safely and peacefully is the same right that Beijing criticizes other countries for exercising in the region. But principles are not like that. They apply to everyone, and every nation, equally.”
SINGAPORE CALLS FOR PRACTICAL WAYS TO DEFUSE SOUTH CHINA SEA INCIDENTS
Singapore’s defense minister said that countries need to look for practical ways to defuse incidents in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands.
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting in Hawaii that incidents may not necessarily involve military ships. He noted that navies have established protocols for when they encounter each other at sea.
Instead, confrontations may develop between fishing vessels or other civilian ships, Ng said. Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter talked at their Hawaii meeting about ways to prevent such incidents from escalating, Ng said.
Singapore doesn’t have any claims to disputed islands, but Ng said it’s interested in the issue because the South China Sea is a major shipping route and many economies depend on it.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its own, citing historical reasons. That has pitted it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all members of ASEAN.
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong in Beijing, Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, Robert Burns in San Diego and Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu contributed to this report.