A look at some recent key 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 gas and oil reserves:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest key developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
CHINA ESCAPES CRITICISM FROM SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
China chalked up a major diplomatic victory Monday after Southeast Asian nations refrained from criticizing it for its territorial expansion in the South China Sea.
Following meetings in Laos, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the region's main grouping — issued a watered-down rebuke of China.
In a joint communique released after their talks, the foreign ministers of ASEAN said only that they "remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments" in the South China Sea. The statement did not mention China by name in referring to the developments.
Most significantly, it failed to mention this month's ruling by an international arbitration panel invalidating China's claim to the vast majority of the crucial waterway.
At a news conference following the meetings, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the panel's decision "amounts to prescribing a dose of wrong medicine."
"And it seems that certain countries outside the region have got all worked up, keeping the fever high," Wang said, an apparent reference to the United States.
"And if the prescription is wrong it will not help cure any disease. That's why we urge other countries in the region to lower the temperature," he told a news conference after 90 minutes of talks with the ASEAN ministers.
CHINESE STATE-RUN COMPANIES OFFER SOUTH CHINA SEA CRUISES
Chinese state-run companies are joining forces to offer luxury cruises in the South China Sea in the wake of this month's international arbitration panel's ruling invalidating China's claims to almost the entire waterway.
Three companies dealing in shipping, tourism and construction will contribute to running as many as eight cruise liners to service a region through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
The companies — Sanya International Cruise Development Co. Ltd., China National Travel Service and China Communications Construction Co. Ltd. — will also build four cruise liner docks in the port of Sanya, capital of China's southernmost island province of Hainan.
As many as three cruise liners will be in service by June 2017, joining the one already operating, Liu Junli, chairman of Sanya International Cruises, was quoted as saying by state media.
At full capacity, the Sanya cruise ship docks will be able to handle 2 million passengers a year, Liu said, while the growth of the cruise industry will spur the construction of hotels, vacation homes, duty-free shops and commercial spaces on Hainan and in the surrounding island groups.
CHINA EXTENDS 4G SERVICE TO DISPUTED SOUTH CHINA SEA ISLANDS
One of China's main cellphone carriers has extended 4G service to several disputed South China Sea islands following China's dismissal of the arbitration panel's ruling.
China Telecommunications Corp., the country's third-biggest telecom carrier, now covers seven islands and reefs in the Spratly group, called the Nansha by China, according to state media reports. That will allow visitors to access the internet, make video calls and shop online.
The company's larger competitor, China Mobile Communications Corp., already offers similar services.
China says its development of the islands is aimed at providing public services as well as cementing its claim to sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea. Along with creating new islands by piling sand on top of coral reefs, it has built airstrips, harbors and lighthouses that is says will benefit fishermen and ship owners who transit the strategic waterway.
The islands' remote location, humid and salty climate, and volatile weather patterns create challenges in terms of providing power keeping equipment maintained.
CHINESE AIR FORCE SOUTH CHINA SEA UNIT CONDUCTS EXERCISES
State broadcaster China Central Television aired video Sunday of a specialized Chinese air force South China Sea unit conducting coordinated exercises.
The video showed a number of warplanes taking off from an airstrip in the southern Chinese island province of Hainan. It was not immediately clear if the footage was portraying the military exercises that China had announced last week for parts of the South China Sea, just days after an international tribunal ruled against Beijing's claim to ownership of virtually the entire strategic waterway.
Previously, Hainan's maritime administration had said that an area southeast of the island province would be closed for four days starting on July 18.
Six governments claim territory in the South China Sea, although the area where the Chinese naval exercises were being held is not considered a particular hotspot. China's navy and coast guard operate extensively throughout the South China Sea and regularly stage live firing exercises in the area.