US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates yesterday warned of possible naval clashes in the South China Sea unless a fast regional solution could be found to ease rising tensions.
His comments to a security conference in Singapore came a day after a meeting with Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and amid fresh incidents at sea between China and both the Philippines and Vietnam.
'I fear without rules of the road... that there will be clashes [in the South China Sea],' Gates said after a speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual gathering of defence chiefs and analysts from the region and beyond.
Any such clashes would 'serve nobody's interest', he said, adding: 'We should not lose any time.'
Gates repeatedly stressed the need for regional agreements and a 'multilateral mechanism' to allow territorial disputes to be settled peacefully - an apparent challenge to China's ongoing demand that fellow claimants to the South China Sea deal with Beijing one-to-one.
Gates' stopped short of a strongly-worded address to the same conference last year in which he accused China of intimidation and coercion in the South China Sea. But he repeatedly stressed US interests in freedom of navigation and commerce throughout the region's seas.
'The US position on maritime security remains clear: we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, in unimpeded economic development and commerce and in respect for international law,' he said.
In another significant move, Gates confirmed the deployment of so-called littoral combat ships to Singapore. These are highly versatile, fast vessels that can operate in shallow waters. Their use was part of a broader range of expanded US patrols and ship visits expected to increase America's regional presence.
Gates used such operations to highlight what he described as an enduring US commitment to Asia in the face of shrinking US defence budgets for years to come. That effort, he said, would also include the development of weapons and strategies to counter attempts to deny US access to regional seas - a reference to China's growing array of area denial weapons, such as anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic weapons that can target an aircraft carrier.
Liang is today due to become the first Chinese defence minister to speak to the forum. His address is going to be closely scrutinised amid current disputes that have included Chinese ships cutting the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel operating off Vietnam's south-central coast in late May.
Vietnam's deputy defence minister Nguyen Chi Vinh warned that Vietnam was prepared to respond if further provoked.
'Vietnam is going to make great efforts to ensure that recent events will not repeat, nor escalate,' Nguyen said, adding that Vietnam would meet its 'responsibilities'.
However, he warned: 'If any part concerned wishes to escalate, Vietnam will act to defend its sovereignty. We will not sit there and watch.'