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:
SOUTHEAST ASIAN NAVIES HEAD TO FIRST JOINT DRILLS WITH CHINA
Southeast Asian navies are heading to their first joint exercises with China and defense officials agreed Friday to conduct a similar drill with the U.S. next year.
Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Oct. 22-28 drills in waters surrounding in southern China Zhanjiang will build trust and confidence. The drills come amid lingering tensions in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety despite competing claims from five other governments and Washington’s insistence that it constitutes international waters open to all.
The defense ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations said in a joint declaration that the exercises would "enhance friendship and confidence between ASEAN member states' navies and the People's Liberation Army Navy and the U.S. Navy."
The officials said at a news conference that the location and extent of the second exercise had not been decided.
ASEAN defense ministers were in Singapore with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Feng, for an Asian security conference this weekend.
CHINA, US DEFENSE CHIEFS MEET AMID TENSIONS
U.S. officials say they sense that relations with the Chinese military, after a rocky few months, may be stabilizing, although face-to-face talks between their respective defense chiefs produced no new agreements.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met Thursday for nearly 90 minutes, 30 minutes longer than scheduled, on the sidelines of an Asian security conference with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe. A participant, Randall Schriver, the Pentagon's top official for Asia-Pacific affairs, said Mattis described the talks as "straightforward and candid" and asserted that high-level talks are especially valuable during times of tension.
Schriver said the discussions covered numerous issues but focused especially on the disputed South China Sea. "That's an area where we will continue to have differences and talk through," Schriver told reporters after the meeting.
Mattis and Wei discussed an existing U.S. invitation for Wei to visit the U.S., but details remain to be worked out, Schriver said.
"There was a commitment on both sides to try to find a time" for such a meeting, he added.
AUSTRALIA LEADER REASSERTS IMPORTANCE OF U.S. ALLIANCE
Australia's foreign minister says her country's alliance with the United States had never been more vital in an era of escalating challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
In her first major policy speech since she took over the foreign ministry in August, Marise Payne told an Australian Institute of International Affairs conference on Oct. 15 that Australia needed to defend its interests in "a period of strategic uncertainty."
The former defense minister's staunch declaration of support for the United States, a treaty defense partner since 1951, came after the Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper China Daily accused Australia and Japan in an editorial last week of "jumping on the U.S. bandwagon to contain China."
"We have no doubt that the U.S. will remain an enduring presence in our region," Payne said. "Other powers will rise, rivalries may intensify, but the United States will be here."
"The challenges in the Indo-Pacific render our alliance as vital as it has ever been," she added.
Australia was also committed to constructive collaboration and engagement with China, its most important trade partner, Payne said.
But she said the region would be safer and more prosperous if differences were managed by agreed rules rather than an exercise of power — an apparent reference to the Chinese militarization of the South China Sea where China claims almost all the territory.
Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Robert Burns and Annabelle Liang in Singapore contributed to this report.