BEIJING — This is your weekly 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. The waters are a major shipping route for global commerce and rich in fish and possible oil and gas reserves.
US HOLDS MULTINATIONAL TRAINING IN MALAYSIA, GUAM
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard launched joint drills with Malaysia's navy last week, while U.S. forces joined with those from Australia, Canada and New Zealand for training in the U.S. territory of Guam.
The drills underscore the degree of U.S. involvement in the region, both with its treaty partners and traditional friendly nations, amid concerns over China's growing presence.
New Zealand, the U.S., Canada and Australia are members of the “Five Eyes” security alliance, while Malaysia’s South China Sea territorial claims overlap with those of China.
The 7th Fleet said in a news release that the Malaysian and U.S. navies have engaged for 25 years to “enhance mutual capabilities in ensuring maritime security and stability,” but this year’s drills mark the first involvement of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and U.S. Coast Guard.
The at-sea training portion will include "hands-on training in visit, board, search and seizure mobile dive and salvage, a gunnery exercise, maritime patrol operations and replenishment at-sea," The 7th Fleet said.
Malaysian vessels taking part include the navy’s most modern British- and German-built surface combatants. (see editor’s note below)
The Guam drills will also include visit, board, search and seizure exercises, along with land and sea insertion techniques, joint demolition operations, small arms operations, counter improvised explosive device operations and “anti-terrorism force protection diving operations,” the 7th Fleet said.
Navy Times editor’s note: It’s unclear what the AP story means by the Royal Malaysian Navy’s most modern British- and German-built surface combatants. The rated British-built Lekiu-class frigates and Italian-built Laksamana-class missile corvettes were ordered or launched more than two decades ago. Recent U.S. Navy photographs from the exercise claim to identify both the Lekiu-class frigate KD Lekiu and the “Kasturi-class corvette KD Gagah Samudera,” but the German-built Kasturi- class corvettes were launched in the mid-1980s and KD Gagah Samudera isn’t one of them. It’s a training vessel (and the first of its class) built by Malaysia and South Korea. The AP correspondents might be referring to the Kedah-class offshore patrol vessels, which were manufactured by what’s now called VT Group, but that firm is headquartered in the U.S. today and the U.S. Navy hasn’t included them in exercise images. The Jerung-class gunboats likewise are ancient and aren’t rated vessels. A Chinese yard has launched two Keris-class littoral mission ships, but they’re unavailable. Malaysia is building a replacement fleet of Maharaja Lela-class frigates (or Gowind-class corvettes, which inspired them), but they’re not arriving from Germany or Britain. We’ve asked 7th Fleet for clarification.
Navy Times editor’s update: Officials at 7th Fleet told us that the Royal Malaysian Navy vessels involved were, indeed, the Lekiu-class frigate KD Lekiu and the Gagah Samudera-class training ship KD Gagah Samudera. AP appears to have erred.
US AIR FORCE CHIEF OF STAFF VOWS ‘NO LET-UP’ IN FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION OPERATIONS
The U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff says there are no plans to reduce freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea that China points to as the source of increased tensions in the region.
Speaking to reporters in Manila on Friday, Gen. David Goldfein said, "There will be no let-up in our willingness or our ability to fly or sail where we need to and when we need to."
"That's our commitment to the region," Goldfein said.
The U.S. is committed to keeping the global commons open for all, whether at sea or in the air and, increasingly in space and cyberspace, the general said. Such use has to adhere to international rules of order, "So, anybody in the region that violates those, it's concerning," he said.
While the U.S. rarely announces such missions, known as "FONOPS," the tempo of such operations is believed to have increased in recent months, angering China.
Beijing says they endanger safety when sailing close to Chinese islands — in deliberate defiance of Chinese territorial claims — and regularly sends aircraft and vessels to see them off.
That's created fears of an open confrontation, despite the sides having signed agreements on how to avoided unexpected encounters in the air and on the sea.
DUTERTE TRIP TO CHINA TO INCLUDE DISCUSSION ON HAGUE ARBITRATION
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is preparing to make his fifth visit to China later this month during which he says he will finally raise the result of the 2016 Hague arbitration case on China's South China Sea claims amid a new spike in tensions.
Duterte, who has sought warmer ties with Beijing, has long been criticized by nationalists and left-wing groups for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with the ruling from an international arbitration panel that declared China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea invalid under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China refused to participate in the arbitration case that Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, initiated, and has ignored the resulting ruling.
Yet the 74-year-old leader is under increasing pressure from the Philippine public and within his own government to call China out on its increasingly aggressive maneuverings in the area.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked Beijing this month to explain the activities of Chinese research vessels and warships in what the Philippines claims as its waters, and accused China of "bullying."
Lorenzana said that China did not ask for permission to send several warships through the Sibutu Strait at the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago on four occasions between February and July. He said two Chinese research ships have also been operating in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo also this month accused China of "duplicity," claiming the Chinese warships shut off their identification transponders while passing through Philippine waters to avoid radar detection.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.