The US voiced concern on Wednesday about rising tension between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea as a senator led calls to boost US seapower faced with Beijing’s growing military.
Experts at a Senate hearing pointed to a string of incidents — including standoffs this year between US and Chinese ships — as evidence of a more assertive sea posture by Beijing.
State Department official Scot Marciel said that Beijing has told US and other foreign oil companies to halt work with Vietnamese partners in the South China Sea or face consequences inside lucrative China.
“We object to any effort to intimidate US companies,” Marciel, a deputy assistant secretary of state handling Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
He said Washington has raised concerns directly with China.
“We have also urged that all claimants exercise restraint and avoid aggressive actions to resolve competing claims,” he said.
Marciel said the US would not take sides on the myriad island disputes involving China and its neighbors, including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Senator Jim Webb, who called the hearing, said he understood the need to stay out of Asia’s sometimes emotionally charged territorial disputes, but worried that the lack of a US position may embolden China.
“We don’t discuss it enough here in the United States — we are the only guarantor there to provide a credible umbrella under which those other countries in the region can successfully grow their economies without intimidation,” said Webb, a Democrat from Virginia.
Webb, a former secretary of the navy, worried that China was quickly closing the gap with the US in seapower.
“If the United States is to remain an Asian nation, and a maritime nation, our nation’s leaders have a choice to make,” he said. “The United States should maintain the quality and strength of its seapower — if not improve it.”