The dispute over the strategic waterways of the South China Sea has intensified, pitting a rising China against its smaller and militarily weaker neighbors who all lay claim to a string of isles, coral reefs and lagoons mostly in the Spratly and the Paracel islands. Only about 45 of them are occupied. The area is one of the world's busiest shipping routes, rich in fish and potential gas and oil reserves, but it has now emerged as a possible flashpoint involving world powers and regional claimants.
A look at some of the most recent key developments:
SATELITTE IMAGES, CHINA'S OWN PHOTOS REVEAL EXPANDED CONSTRUCTION
New satellite images show China has almost completed the construction of a 3,000-meter (984-foot) airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, one of at least seven features in the Spratlys where massive island-building by Beijing has rattled other claimants and is opposed by the United States. According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which analyzed the images, China continues to pave and mark the airstrip. The island has a partially-developed a port with nine temporary loading piers, plus two helipads, up to 10 satellite communications antennas, and one possible radar tower.
The extent of the construction was perhaps most telling on photographs purportedly taken by China's own sailors on Fiery Cross Reef. A total of 17 pictures made it to Sina, one of China's main web portals, titled: "Gratifying results on China's Yongshu Reef: building vegetable greenhouses and growing fruit trees." They show women sailors posing on a sea barrier, another one smiling in a greenhouse where vegetables are grown, troops around a marker, pigs in a sty. Philippine security officials suspect the pictures of the female sailors may have been taken elsewhere and displayed publicly to show how far China's island-building has advanced.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on June 16 that the land reclamation projects on some islands and reefs "will be completed in upcoming days." But, in a sign that the developments were far from over, the ministry also said on its website that China would follow up by building infrastructure. Philippine military officials, citing recent surveillance reports, say the island-building was proceeding full-blast in at least two areas, the Mischief and Subi reefs, which lie close to Philippine-occupied features.
UN TRIBUNAL STARTS HEARINGS ON PHILIPPINE CASE; CHINA NO-SHOW
A U.N. tribunal in The Hague has started hearing a case filed by the Philippines against China's territorial claims. The ruling could have far-reaching consequences.
It opened with China's contention that the arbitration body does not have authority to assume jurisdiction over Manila's complaint.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario says the Philippines would accept any ruling, "win or lose."
He told the tribunal, which operates under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, that China's behavior has become progressively more aggressive and disconcerting. "Outside observers have referred to this as China's 'salami-slicing' strategy: That is, taking little steps over time, none of which individually is enough to provoke a crisis."
Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told reporters in Manila that his government would stick to its decision not to participate in the arbitration and instead renewed China's offer to resolve the conflict through one-on-one negotiations with the Philippines.
"Our position is consistent. We'll not accept nor participate in the arbitration," Zhao said.
Zhao also said that China would never start a war with the Philippines over the long-contested territories. "I cannot imagine that China would wage a war against the Philippines over what is happening in the South China Sea. It is not China's policy and will not be China's policy," he said.
The Philippines brought its disagreements with China to international arbitration in January 2013, a year after Chinese coast guard ships took control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal following a tense standoff with Filipino ships.
TROUBLE WITH MALAYSIA
China is putting to a test its otherwise friendly relations with Malaysia with its deployment of a coast guard ship, the Haijing, to the Luconia Reef nearly 90 nautical miles north of Sarawak and well within Malaysia's exclusive economic zone. The Chinese ship has not left the reef complex two years after it was first detected there.
Malaysia, which counts China as its largest trading partner, has in the past downplayed such intrusions, but the government ordered the navy and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency recently to deploy ships and aircraft and monitor the Chinese ship's activities.
"This is not an area with overlapping claims. In this case, we're taking diplomatic action," Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the Prime Minister's Office, told Wall Street Journal.
The area in question falls in the southernmost tip of China's so-called "nine-dash line," a still-unspecified sea boundary that encompasses almost 90 percent of the South China Sea which Beijing claims as its own.
"China has pursued its activities in these disputed maritime areas with overwhelming force. The Philippines can only counter by invoking international law." — Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski in Bangkok and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.