US pledges extra sea defence assistance to Asean members
Kerry pledges additional US$32.5 million for Asean members in face of growing tensions with Beijing, and strongly criticises air defence zone
Associated Press in Hanoi
Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that the United States would boost maritime security assistance to the countries of Southeast Asia amid rising tensions with Beijing.
On his first visit to Vietnam as America's top diplomat, Kerry pledged an additional US$32.5 million for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
It is intended to help them protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China.
Watch: US Sec. of State, offers new support for Vietnam maritime security
Included in the new aid is up to US$18 million for Vietnam alone that will include five fast patrol boats for its coastguard.
With the new contribution, US maritime security assistance to the region will exceed US$156 million over the next two years.
Kerry said the new assistance was not a "quickly conceived reaction" to events in the region. Rather, it was a "gradual and deliberate expansion" of US support as part of the Obama administration's broader decision to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific region.
However, his comments came as Washington and Beijing are involved in a diplomatic row over a near collision between US and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea just 11 days ago.
Beijing announced on November 23 that it was establishing an air defence zone over the East China Sea. All aircraft entering the zone are required to notify Chinese authorities beforehand.
Neighbouring countries and the US have said they will not honour the new zone - believed to be aimed at claiming disputed territory - and have said it unnecessarily raises tensions.
"Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region," Kerry said 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 the Asean nations 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 air defence zone - has alarmed many of the 10 Asean members, including Vietnam and the Philippines, which Kerry will visit today.
Kerry's announcement was accompanied by blunt criticism of China for its creation of the air defence 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".
Kerry said the air zone "clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident" that could lead to possible conflict between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands - known as the Senkakus in Japan - which each claim as their own.
He said the US was "very concerned about recent actions that have increased tensions between China and Japan".
He added: "We call for intensified negotiations and diplomatic initiatives.
"The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, particularly in the South China Sea."