The US on Friday accused China of raising tensions through a new military garrison in the South China Sea as it called on all sides to lower tensions in the hotly contested waters.
China announced last week that it was establishing the tiny city of Sansha and a garrison on an island in the disputed Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), infuriating Vietnam and the Philippines, which have accused Beijing of intimidation. The islands are also claimed by Taiwan.
“We are concerned by the increase in tensions in the South China Sea and are monitoring the situation closely,” US Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement.
“In particular, China’s upgrading of the administrative level of Sansha city and establishment of a new military garrison there covering disputed areas of the South China Sea run counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences and risk further escalating tensions in the region,” he said.
Ventrell also pointed to “confrontational rhetoric” and incidents at sea, saying: “The United States urges all parties to take steps to lower tensions.”
China says it controls much of the South China Sea, but Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam all claim portions.
Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of stepping up harassment at sea.
The US has rallied behind Southeast Asian nations, expanding military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam. US President Barack Obama has decided to send US Marines to Australia in a further show of US power in Asia.
The US Senate approved a resolution late on Thursday that “strongly urges” all regional nations to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from permanently inhabiting points in the South China Sea until a code of conduct is reached.
The resolution, sponsored by US senators from both major parties, declared that Washington was committed “to assist the nations of Southeast Asia to remain strong and independent.”
During a 2010 visit to Vietnam, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that Washington had a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, through which half of world cargo passes.
The US State Department statement on Friday reiterated that the US has an interest in stability and “unimpeded lawful commerce” in the South China Sea, but that Washington does not take a position on rival claims.
China also has separate disputes with US ally Japan in the East China Sea, an issue discussed by Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto on a visit on Friday to Washington.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, addressing a joint news conference with Morimoto, voiced hope for further progress in a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
“The last thing we want is to have direct confrontation in the South China Sea with regards to jurisdictional issues,” Panetta said.