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.
TWO VIETNAMESE FISHERMEN DEAD FOLLOWING CLASH WITH PHILIPPINE NAVY
The Philippine navy gave chase to Vietnamese fishing vessels operating within the country’s exclusive economic zone and opened fire on one of them. Following the clash, the bodies of two dead Vietnamese soldiers were found aboard one of the fishing boats.
The Philippine government said Monday that one of the Vietnamese fishing vessels initiated “very dangerous maneuvers” and slammed into a navy boat during the chase. It said that prompted its sailors to fire warning shots.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said a “fair and thorough” investigation would be conducted into the incident, which occurred early Saturday off the northwestern Philippines.
Cayetano assured his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, that the five other Vietnamese fishermen who were taken into custody by Philippine authorities would be treated well and could be accessed anytime by Vietnamese officials.
Both the Philippines and Vietnam claim territory in the South China Sea, although a Philippine security official told The Associated Press on Sunday that the incident was not related to the main disputes far from the coast.
The deadly incident underscores the risks in a region where competition is heavy for fish, oil, gas and other maritime resources. In 2013, Philippine coast guard personnel opened fire and killed a Taiwanese fisherman on board a boat that sailed in waters between the northern Philippines and Taiwan. Taiwan, which also occupies islands in the South China Sea, imposed sanctions before the row was resolved.
CHINA, VIETNAM HOLD TALKS ON MAINTAINING BORDER STABILITY
China and Vietnam, who have clashed repeatedly over rival South China Sea territorial claims, held two days of talks between leading military officials aimed at maintaining border stability and developing bilateral relations.
The weekend meetings were held in northwest Vietnam’s Lai Chau province and southwest China’s Yunnan province, which face each other along the border that Chinese forces crossed in 1979 during a war aimed at punishing Hanoi for its invasion of Chinese ally Cambodia.
The sides settled the border more than a decade ago, and also successfully demarcated territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. However, they continue to dispute ownership of the Paracel group and other holdings in the South China Sea, and a standoff between the countries in 2014 after China parked an oil rig near the islands sparked deadly riots in Vietnam.
Relations have since recovered, in part due to long-standing connections between the two communist governments.
The meetings also included joint anti-terrorism and border patrol displays observed by the delegation leaders, China’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Gen. Fan Changlong, and Vietnamese Defense Minister Gen. Ngo Xuan Lich.
“The Chinese military is willing to work with the Vietnamese military to properly control divergences between the two and inject positive energy into the development of bilateral relations,” Fan was quoted as saying by China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
The official Vietnam News Agency cited Deputy Defense Minister Sen. Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh as saying the program “helped to promote coordination between the two countries’ border forces in dealing with issues regarding territorial sovereignty, border security and border law compliance.”
CHINA, SINGAPORE SEEK TO PATCH UP RELATIONS WITH PRIME MINISTER’S VISIT TO BEIJING
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Beijing last week as the two sides seek to patch up relations following months of tensions over China’s claims in the South China Sea and relations with the U.S.
While the Southeast Asian city state does not claim territory in the South China Sea, it has said that countries must abide by international rules. It has backed a ruling by an international tribunal in the Hague issued last year that invalidated much of China’s claim to the entire waterway. Beijing angrily rejected the ruling as null and void.
China also dislikes Singapore’s contention that the continued presence of the U.S. military benefits regional peace and stability. Beijing sees that as lending support for what it considers to be an American campaign to contain China and impede its rise as Asia’s power center.
China registered its displeasure by refusing to invite Lee to attend a conference in Beijing earlier this year to discuss China’s multibillion-dollar plan to build trade and transportation links between Europe, Africa and Asia.
On Wednesday, however, Xi welcomed Lee at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, calling his three-day visit “a reflection of the closeness of the two countries’ relations.”
Singapore, with its majority Chinese population, is an example of countries seeking to strike a balance between their close diplomatic and defense relationships with the U.S. and their robust economic links with China. Beijing reported $44 billion in exports to Singapore in 2016 and $26 billion in imports, and the two are also major investors in each other’s economies.
TRUMP MENTIONS SOUTH CHINA SEA SOVEREIGNTY IN U.N. DEBUT SPEECH
President Donald Trump mentioned the South China Sea among regions where national sovereignty has been threatened in his debut address at the United Nations, but offered no direct criticism of China’s moves in the area.
In his speech last week, Trump said U.N. members must “protect our nations, their interests and their futures.”
“We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow,” Trump said.
That was a rare implied criticism of Russia, which in 2014 annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region. It also has backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Criticism of China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea has been more muted under Trump’s administration, although the U.S. Navy has continued to sail close to China’s man-made islands in the area to assert freedom of navigation and challenge Beijing’s ambition to control movements in the area.
While the U.S. does not take an official stand on the rival sovereignty claims, it demands that disputes be handled peacefully and the rights to navigation and overflight be upheld.
Trump made one other mention of China in his address, thanking Beijing for voting yes in the U.N. Security Council on hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Tim Sullivan in Beijing contributed to this report.