HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Taking clear aim at China's growing aggressiveness in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Monday that the United States will boost maritime security assistance to the countries of Southeast Asia amid rising tensions with Beijing.
On his first visit to Vietnam as America's top diplomat, Kerry pledged an additional $32.5 million for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China. Included in the new aid is up to $18 million for Vietnam alone 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.
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 region. However, his comments came as Washington and Beijing trade barbs over a near collision between U.S. and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea just 11 days ago.
China announced in late November that it was establishing a defense zone over the East China Sea, a maritime area between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. All aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand, and China would take unspecified defensive measures against those that don't comply. Neighboring countries and the U.S. have said they will not honor the new zone — believed aimed at claiming disputed territory — and have said it unnecessarily raises tensions. Already, China has claimed it has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.