Tensions are running high after a near-collision of U.S. and Chinese naval vessels this month and an air defence zone China has declared over an area that includes territory controlled by Japan, a U.S. ally. Those actions have raised fresh alarm as Beijing modernizes its military and claims a wide swath of ocean and disputed islands across the East and South China Seas.
Kerry used his first visit to Vietnam as America's top diplomat to reiterate support for diplomacy between Southeast Asia's regional bloc and Beijing over the territorial disputes, and to provide aid for Southeast Asian nations to defend waters they claim as their own.
Kerry pledged $32.5 million, including up to $18 million for Vietnam that will include five fast patrol boats for its Coast Guard. With the new contribution, U.S. maritime security assistance to the region will exceed $156 million over the next two years, he said.
"Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region," Kerry told reporters 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."
The next stop on his Asian trip will be the Philippines, which lost control of a disputed reef in the South China Sea last year after a standoff with China. The U.S. is also helping equip the Philippines with ships and radar, and is in negotiations with Manila to increase the American military presence there.
Kerry said the new assistance was not a "quickly conceived reaction to any events in the region" but rather a "gradual and deliberate expansion" of U.S. support as part of the Obama administration's broader decision to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific.
But the step is almost certain to anger Beijing, which bristles at what it sees as U.S. interference in areas it views as China's "core interest." Beijing looks dimly on Washington's push to increase the U.S. military presence and strengthen its alliances in Asia as it ends a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, calling it an attempt to contain China.
In a reminder of the high stakes in play, U.S. and Chinese naval vessels came close to colliding in the South China Sea on Dec. 5, the most serious incident between the two navies since 2009.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet said Saturday that USS Cowpens was operating in international waters and had to manoeuvr to avoid hitting China's lone aircraft carrier. The Liaoning, a symbol of China's ambition to develop a navy that operates further from its own shores, only entered service last year and was on its first-ever sea trials in the South China Sea.
Beijing has not formally commented on the incident, but the state-run Global Times newspaper reported on Monday that the U.S. ship had first harassed the Liaoning and its group of support ships, getting too close to a Chinese naval drill and entering within 30 miles of the Chinese fleet's "inner defence layer."
As China expands its navy's reach and starts to challenge decades of American military predominance in the region, it's becoming more common for vessels of the two nations to operate in close proximity. The Obama administration has made it a priority to seek closer military co-operation with China to prevent misunderstandings that could spark a clash — part of a broader push to foster friendly ties between the established world power and the emerging one.
Beijing's unilateral declaration in late November of its East China Sea air defence identification zone was a setback, and has ratcheted up tensions with Japan over disputed islands within that zone. All aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand, and China has said it would take unspecified defensive measures against those that don't comply.
The U.S., Japan and South Korea have said they will not honour the new zone, and in a show of defiance soon after China announced it, the U.S. flew two B-52 bombers through the area.
The issue loomed large during meetings in Beijing between Vice-President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in early December, and Kerry offered harsh words about the zone in Hanoi Monday. He said it "clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident." He called for intensified diplomacy to address the issue.
"The zone should not be implemented, and China should refrain from taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, particularly in the South China Sea," Kerry said, reiterating that such moves by Beijing would not affect U.S. military operations in the region.
Three years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also in Hanoi, raised hackles in Beijing by declaring that the U.S. had a national interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, where China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam have competing claims. Those disputes have occasionally flared, including a 1988 naval battle between China and Vietnam that left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead.
Washington has supported efforts by Southeast Asia's regional bloc to negotiate collectively with their larger neighbour China on a legally binding code of conduct to manage the disputes. Stressing U.S. neutrality on the competing sovereignty claims, Kerry again called for quick agreement on the code and peaceful resolution of disputes.
Those efforts have made some headway in the past year, but Beijing would still prefer to negotiate with each country separately. It regards the entire South China Sea and island groups within it as its own and interprets international law as giving it the right to police foreign naval activity there.
Pennington contributed to this report from Washington. Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt in Hanoi also contributed.