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:
TRUMP OFFERS TO ARBITRATE IN SEA DISPUTES
President Donald Trump offered to mediate in the South China Sea disputes, although it’s not clear how serious the offer was. China is likely to reject any expanded U.S. involvement in the quarrels over sovereignty.
“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” Trump said Sunday at a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, before flying to Manila for the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The grouping, known as ASEAN, includes four of the six governments claiming waters and islands in the South China Sea.
Trump’s offer faces major obstacles. For one, China has steadfastly opposed what it calls U.S. meddling in the disputes and has balked at the U.S. Navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Asked about Trump’s offer, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday that China remained committed to “solving the relevant disputes through dialogue and consultation with the countries directly concerned and maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
“We believe that regional countries have the will, wisdom and capability to deal with the South China Sea issue in a proper way,” Geng said, without directly mentioning Trump’s offer.
“Meanwhile, we hope the countries outside the region will respect regional countries’ efforts in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea and constructively contribute to that,” Geng said.
The Philippines, the head of ASEAN’s rotational chairmanship, said member states of the 10-nation regional bloc have to consult each other but thanked Trump for the offer.
“He is the master of the art of the deal but, of course, the claimant countries have to answer as a group or individually … mediation involves all the claimants and nonclaimants,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters.
The U.S. is not a claimant to the potentially oil-rich and busy waters, but it has declared that it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes. Several nations back an active American military presence in the region to serve as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven man-made islands equipped with military installations.
XI PLAYS DOWN CONCERNS OVER CHINA’S MILITARY PRESENCE
Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to allay concerns over Beijing’s military buildup and the prospects of war in the South China Sea’s contested waters.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Xi, during a meeting in Danang, Vietnam, where they attended the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last week, assured him of China’s peaceful intentions in the strategic waterway, where Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have overlapping claims.
Duterte said that when he raised concerns over China’s increasing military capability in the South China Sea, Xi replied: “No, it’s nothing.”
“He acknowledged that war cannot be promoted by anybody, (that) it would only mean destruction for all of us,” Duterte told reporters after flying back to Manila. “He knows that if he goes to war, everything will blow up.”
Xi spoke about the territorial rifts ahead of the ASEAN summit in the Philippines, which also includes the U.S., China and other global players.
Duterte, however, said the Chinese leader would not back down on Beijing’s territorial claim and justified his decision not to immediately demand Chinese compliance with a ruling by a U.N.-linked tribunal that invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds.
China has dismissed that ruling as a “sham” and did not participate in the arbitration case that the Philippines filed during the administration of Duterte’s predecessor. Duterte took steps to thaw frosty relations with China after he won the presidency last year.
“If you go to the negotiating table and you start with the statement that I am here to claim validity of our ownership, you’re wasting your time. They will not talk about it,” Duterte said of China.
PHILIPPINES HALTS CONSTRUCTION WORK ON SANDBAR
The Philippines said President Rodrigo Duterte stopped construction work on a newly formed sandbar in the disputed South China Sea after China protested.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said last week that the dispute over a string of sandbars called Sandy Cay emerged in August and prompted China and the Philippines to consider negotiating some sort of protocol or arrangement to allow both sides to prevent such incidents from spiraling out of control.
Lorenzana said the rift over the tiny sandbar near the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the Spratlys archipelago remains unresolved but both sides pledged not to occupy any new territory.
“We tried to put some structures in one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted,” Lorenzana told a diplomatic forum in Manila, adding that Duterte later ordered, “Let’s pull out.”
Duterte has courted Chinese trade and assistance and taken a non-confrontational approach to their territorial disputes. He has refused to immediately take up with China a ruling by a U.N.-linked tribunal that invalidated Beijing’s sprawling claims in the South China Sea, sparking criticism from nationalists and left-wing groups that wanted him to demand Chinese compliance with the landmark decision immediately.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.