The U.S. will provide a second high-endurance Coast Guard cutter to Vietnam next year in a move that’s aimed at strengthening its capabilities amid escalating tensions in the South China Sea.
Calling for China to end to its “bullying and unlawful activities” in the disputed waters, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in prepared remarks in Hanoi on Wednesday that Southeast Asian nations were “increasingly being subjected to coercion and intimidation.”
“Combined with reclamation and militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, 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,” Esper said.
Read more: China Is Winning the Silent War to Dominate the South China Sea
The U.S. wants to purse practical defense cooperation so Vietnam “can defend its sovereignty” and “ensure its energy security and continued economic growth,” Esper said earlier Wednesday in opening remarks before his meeting with Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Vietnam, which shares a long border with its fellow Communist country, stands virtually alone in the region as it pushes back against Beijing amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a region containing unexploited hydrocarbons that the U.S. says could be worth $2.5 trillion.
Read more: Vietnam Says Chinese Ships Escalating Tension in South China Sea
Tensions between China and Vietnam have been on the rise since July, when the Chinese state-owned surveyor first began studying the seabed of the southern block in the disputed South China Sea operated by Russia’s state-owned Rosneft Oil PJSC. China has repeatedly warned Vietnam to abandon exploration projects with foreign companies that it says threaten China’s sovereignty.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Tuesday the U.S. has long sought to “fan the flames” and create “chaos in the South China Sea,” adding that China was working with regional countries to ensure stability.
“We believe that a strong defensive relationship is the pillar of our bilateral ties,” Esper said. “It is based on our shared interests and principles, which include respect for sovereignty, international law, freedom of navigation and unimpeded economic activity in the South China Sea.