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.
CHINA’S SCARBOROUGH PLANS STILL UNLCEAR — China may or may not be planning to build an environmental monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, depending on who you ask.
While the top official in the administrative region covering the island says preparatory work for the station is a priority, the foreign ministry says there is no such plan.
The Philippines, which also claims the shoal, has sought a clarification from Beijing.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last week that reports about the facility on Scarborough had been checked and were untrue.
However, the official Hainan Daily newspaper had earlier quoted Xiao Jie, the top official in Sansha City, as saying that preparatory work on the station was among the government’s top priorities for 2017. Calls to the region’s government seeking clarification have rung unanswered.
Such a move would likely renew concerns among Beijing’s neighbors over its assertive territorial claims in the strategically crucial South China Sea.
Beijing seized tiny, uninhabited Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels.
China’s construction and land reclamation work in the South China Sea have drawn strong criticism from the U.S. and others, who accuse Beijing of further militarizing the region and altering geography to bolster its claims. China says the seven man-made islands in the disputed Spratly group, complete with their airstrips and military installations, are mainly for civilian purposes.
Prior to the announcement, South China Sea tensions had eased somewhat after Beijing erupted in fury last year following an international arbitration tribunal ruling on a case filed by the Philippines. The verdict invalidated China’s sweeping territorial claims and determined that China had violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Scarborough Shoal.
China has since allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal following an improvement in ties between the countries, but it does not recognize the tribunal’s ruling as valid.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, which straddles one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas.
CHINA’S PREMIER REASSURES ON FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION, OVERFLIGHT — On a visit to Australia, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered reassurances on the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.
Li, China’s second ranked official, said China would work with Australia to ensure freedom of navigation in distributed regions.
China will “never seek hegemony and dominance,” Li said, adding China needed a stable world environment to grow its economy.
Li was welcomed to Parliament House by a 19-gun salute and distant protest chants of anti-China demonstrators who were kept well away from the Chinese leader.
While Australia does not take an active participant in the South China Sea disputes, it is a close security partner of the United States, while also relying on China as its biggest export market. During Li’s visit, he and Turnbull oversaw the signing of agreements that will expand their 2-year-old free trade pact. China also agreed to expand its market for Australian beef exporters.
Turnbull rejected arguments that Australia must choose between the U.S. and China, despite growing tensions between the economic superpowers.