BANGKOK (AP) — 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:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.
MATTIS RULES OUT MILITARY RESPONSE IN SOUTH CHINA SEA
On his first trip to Asia as secretary of defense, Jim Mattis ruled out a military response to China's assertiveness in the South China Sea but promised to continue with freedom of navigation operations to oppose Beijing's occupation of disputed islands.
"At this time, we do not see any need for dramatic military moves at all," Mattis told reporters in Tokyo, emphasizing the need for diplomacy.
He said that "freedom of navigation operations and other actions by the U.S. forces in the South China Sea contribute to maintaining maritime order based on the rule of law."
"Freedom of navigation is absolute, and whether it be commercial shipping or our U.S. Navy, we will practice in international waters and transit international waters as appropriate," he said.
Over China's objections, U.S. warships have deliberately sailed close to Chinese-occupied features four times since October 2015 in operations meant to enforce Washington's position that the waters must remain open to international navigation.
China has repeatedly warned the U.S. to stay away from the South China Sea disputes because it is not a claimant.
Mattis also explicitly stated that the Trump administration will stick to the previous U.S. stance that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to defending Japan's continued administration of the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, which are contested by China and also known as the Diaoyu.
In response, China's Foreign Ministry reasserted its claim of sovereignty over the tiny, uninhabited islands and called on the U.S. to cease "making wrong remarks" over the issue.
In an editorial, the ruling Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times called Mattis' statement on the South China Sea a "mind-soothing pill."
"For, at the very least, it dispersed the clouds of war that many feared were gathering over the South China Sea," the paper said.
PHILIPPINES DOESN'T BELIEVE IN U.S.-CHINA WAR
The Philippine defense secretary doesn't think the U.S. and China will go to war over the South China Sea despite hardened rhetoric.
"Trump is a businessman and he knows that if war breaks out, businesses will suffer," Delfin Lorenzana told the Bloomberg news agency.
He also questioned U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's suggestion during his Senate confirmation hearing last month that Washington should deny China access to its man-made islands where Beijing built airstrips, radars and installed weapons in waters which are also claimed by the Philippines and five other governments.
"How can you prevent something that's already there?" he said. "I'm not going to wage war over those small islands. ... Even if we have the military might, we will also think twice before we engage in a shooting war."
The prospect of a military confrontation between the U.S. and China over the South China Sea was raised by President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon when he hosted the conservative Breitbart News Daily radio show in 2015 and 2016, according to USA Today, which reviewed audio recordings.
"We're going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, aren't we?" Bannon was quoted as saying in March 2016. "There's no doubt about that. They're taking their sandbars and making basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting missiles on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face — and you understand how important face is — and say it's an ancient territorial sea."
Lorenzana, whose government under President Rodrigo Duterte has distanced itself from its U.S. ally and is mending relations with Beijing, said that the Philippines will continue to speak up against Chinese incursions in its waters. "We are not abandoning our claim in the South China Sea," he said, adding that Manila's position is backed by an international arbitration ruling last year that invalidated China's claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte expressed concern last week that his country may get entangled in any U.S.-China conflict, and put Washington on notice that he won't allow any storage of lethal weapons in facilities operated by the U.S. military inside Philippine army camps. U.S. Ambassador Sung Kim denied that any weapons depots are being built.
A 2014 defense agreement, which was criticized by China, allows U.S. forces to preposition troops and equipment in five Philippine army bases close to the South China Sea.
U.S. PACIFIC COMMANDER TO OPEN MULTINATIONAL DRILLS IN THAILAND
U.S. military commander in the Pacific Adm. Harry Harris will be the highest-ranking American officer to attend the Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand since a coup there three years ago.
The U.S. had scaled down the 10-day drills since the 2014 coup, and Harris' scheduled appearance at the Feb. 14 opening ceremony is seen as a sign that the U.S.-Thai military ties are on the mend.
The largest multilateral exercise in Asia, Cobra Gold brings together 29 nations as participants and observers and 3,600 U.S. troops in drills both ashore and afloat.
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