"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."
While stressing U.S. neutrality on the competing sovereignty claims, Kerry called on China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, to quickly agree to a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea and to resolve their disputes peacefully through negotiations.
China's increasing assertiveness in the region — including the establishment of the East China Sea air defense zone — has alarmed many of the 10 ASEAN members , including Vietnam and the Philippines, which Kerry will visit on Tuesday.
In addition, Kerry made clear that the aid is designed to help Southeast Asian nations defend their waters from encroachment and his announcement was accompanied by blunt criticism of China for its creation of a new air defense zone and suggestions that it might do the same in the South China Sea. As such, it is almost certain to anger Beijing, which bristles at what it sees as U.S. interference in areas China considers to be in its "core interest."
China and Vietnam fought a bloody border war in 1979, and in 1988 a naval battle close to disputed islands in the seas left 70 Vietnamese sailors dead. Disputes over fishing rights in the region have triggered occasional violent incidents and hiked up diplomatic tensions since then.
Kerry had harsh words for China's new East China Sea air defense zone, saying it "clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident" that could lead to possible conflict between China and Japan over a string of small islands that each claim as their own.