HANOI, Vietnam (AP) -- The United States will boost maritime security assistance to China's smaller neighbors amid rising tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Monday during a visit to Vietnam, where he also pressed the communist government on human rights and democratic and economic reforms.
The U.S. will provide an additional $32.5 million to help Southeast Asian nations protect their territorial waters and secure navigational freedom, Kerry said. Vietnam alone will receive up to $18 million, including five fast patrol-boats that will be given to the Vietnamese Coast Guard, he said. With the new contribution, U.S. maritime security assistance to the region will exceed $156 million over the next two years, the State Department said.
At a news conference Monday with Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Kerry said the assistance was not a "quickly conceived reaction to any events in the region" but rather part of a "gradual and deliberate expansion" in such aid. But he made clear that the aid is designed to help nations defend their waters from encroachment.
"Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region," Kerry said. "We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims."
Kerry's visit to Vietnam, to be followed by a stop in the Philippines on Tuesday, comes as tensions over conflicting claims to territory in the South China Sea have risen dramatically, and many of China's neighbors are seeking assurances from Washington that it will remain a guarantor of maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Both Vietnam and the Philippines are involved in disputes with China. Monday's announcement was likely to rankle Beijing and calm concerns in Vietnam and other countries that the United States might be acquiescing to China's shows of strength.
China's growing assertiveness in the region — including the establishment of a new air defense zone over parts of the East China Sea over strenuous U.S. objections — has alarmed many, including Vietnam.
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.
Hanoi is especially worried about nationalist anger toward its giant neighbor and nominal ideological ally morphing into protests against its own authoritarian rule.
At Monday's news conference, Kerry had harsh words for China over the East China Sea defense zone, saying it increased the risk of "miscalculation" and possible conflict between China and Japan.
Via Patrick H.