Taking clear aim at China’s growing aggressiveness in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors, US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday announced that Washington would boost maritime security assistance to Southeast Asian countries amid rising tensions with Beijing.
On his first visit to Vietnam as the US’ top diplomat, Kerry pledged an additional US$32.5 million for ASEAN members to protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China. Included in the new aid is up to US$18 million for Vietnam alone that will include five fast patrol boats for its coast guard.
With the new contribution, US maritime security assistance to the region will exceed US$156 million over the next two years, he said.
Kerry said the new assistance was not a “quickly conceived reaction to any events in the region,” but rather a “gradual and deliberate expansion” of US support as part of US President Barack Obama’s administration’s broader decision to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific region.
However, his comments came as Washington and Beijing trade barbs over a near collision between US and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea on Dec. 5.
China announced late last month that it was establishing a defense zone over the East China Sea, a maritime area between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. All aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand, and China would take unspecified defensive measures against those that do not comply.
Neighboring countries and the US have said they will not honor the new zone — believed to be aimed at claiming disputed territory — and have said it unnecessarily raises tensions.
Already, China has claimed it has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.
“Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region,” Kerry told reporters at a news conference with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. “We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims.”
While stressing US neutrality on the competing sovereignty claims, Kerry called on China and ASEAN to quickly agree to a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea and to resolve their disputes peacefully through negotiations.
China’s increasing assertiveness in the region — including the establishment of the East China Sea air defense zone — has alarmed many of the 10 ASEAN members , including Vietnam and the Philippines, which Kerry will visit today.
In addition, Kerry made clear that the aid is designed to help Southeast Asian nations defend their waters from encroachment and his announcement was accompanied by blunt criticism of China for its creation of a new air defense zone and suggestions that it might do the same in the South China Sea.
As such, it is almost certain to anger Beijing, which bristles at what it sees as US interference in areas China considers to be in its “core interest.”