A top United States naval commander warned yesterday that growing economic power might tempt some Asian countries to settle disputes by force - remarks widely seen as directed at China.
The comments by Vice-Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the Japan-based US Seventh Fleet, came amid mounting territorial disputes between China and its neighbours.
Yesterday, the Philippines also said a UN arbitration tribunal had convened to examine its conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Swift - speaking at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney - said the region's economic boom had led nations to improve their military capabilities. The heightened security challenges increased the importance of collaboration between the region's militaries, he said.
"Economic power is being converted to military power in many parts of the region, which may increase the temptation to use coercion or force in an attempt to resolve differences between nations," Swift said.
Beijing has been angered by US efforts to increase its regional military presence as part of a strategic "pivot" towards Asia.
It fears Washington is using China's territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
Yue Gang, a retired colonel and Beijing-based military commentator, said Swift's remarks appeared directed at China in an attempt to bring other Asian nations closer to Washington. "It is similar to spreading the China threat theory," Yue said. "Other Asian nations may find it necessary to team up with the US to offset China."
Washington has repeatedly denied any cold-war-style containment policy against China, saying it wants only to ensure peaceful development and protect vital trade routes.
But Barack Obama warned China against using force or intimidation to settle maritime disputes at the Sino-US strategic and economic dialogue in Washington last week.
Swift described the military relationship between China and the US as "collegial" and said Washington welcomed inclusive military relationships.
He said collaboration with China would bring the two nations closer and prevent maritime conflict. The vice-admiral also said he believed a cold war between China and the US was unlikely because today's circumstances were "very different" from the past.
He noted that the US was even supportive of a recent Sino-Russia joint naval exercise that ended on Friday. "We have much more in common than we have in competition with China," he said.
Meanwhile, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said a five-member tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea convened last week in The Hague and approved a set of rules to look into the legal challenge Manila launched against Beijing in January.
Additional reporting by Associated Press