THE UNITED States has stoked tensions with China after Defence Secretary Mark Esper confirmed it was providing Vietnam with another coast guard cutter for its growing fleet of ships, boosting Hanoi’s ability to patrol the South China Sea amid tensions with China.
And Mr Esper also upped the stakes by accusing China of “bullying” its neighbours, in reference to China’s territorial claim over the disputed stretch of water. Mr Esper disclosed the decision during an address in Vietnam, which has emerged as the most vocal opponent in Asia in respect of China’s policy towards the South China Sea, site of numerous heavily fortified islands.
In his speech, Mr Esper took aim at China, which he accused of “bullying” neighbours, like Vietnam.
He told students at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam: “China’s unilateral efforts to assert illegitimate maritime claims threaten other nations’ access to vital natural resources, undermine the stability of regional energy markets, and increase the risk of conflict.”
The vessel will be Vietnam’s second cutter from the US Coast Guard, which just two years ago transferred a Hamilton-class cutter.
By providing the ships, the US hopes to enable Vietnam to assert its sovereignty and deter China.
More than four decades after the Vietnam War ended, ties between the United States and Vietnam are increasingly focused on shared concerns over Chinese expansion.
China claims 90 percent of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of it, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year.
Beijing in July sent a ship for a months-long seismic survey to an area internationally designated as Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but also claimed by China.
Vietnam said earlier this month it could explore legal action in the dispute, a move previously taken by the Philippines – where Mr Esper visited earlier this week.
In 2016, the Philippines won a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that invalidated China’s claim over most of the South China Sea.
Speaking earlier at Vietnam’s defence ministry, Mr Esper said the international rules-based order “has come under duress”.
He added: “Collectively, we must stand up against coercion and intimidation, protect the rights of all nations, big and small.”
The United States accuses China of militarising the South China Sea and trying to intimidate Asian neighbours who might want to exploit its extensive oil and gas reserves.
In April, the United States delivered six patrol boats worth $12 million to Vietnam’s Coast Guard.
Those vessels were in addition to another twelve “Metal Shark” patrol boats it provided to Vietnam in the last two years.
Tensions between the Vietnam and China have been increasing since July, when Beijing sent a ship for a seismic survey to an area internationally designated as being within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but which is also claimed by China.
Speaking at a conference in Hanoi, deputy foreign minister Le Hoai Trung said suggested his country could even resort to legal action to try and find a resolution, saying: ”We know that these measures include fact-finding, mediation, conciliation, negotiation, arbitration and litigation measures.”
Speaking in May, top US Air Force commander General Charles Brown told Bloomberg China would “keep pushing the envelope”, particularly in the South China Sea region.
He added: “My sense of the way the Chinese operate is somewhat incremental.
“They’ll continue to push the envelop to figure out does anybody say or do anything – if you don’t push back it’ll keep coming.”