WASHINGTON: The United States and Vietnam on Friday jointly called for freedom of navigation and rejected the use of force in the South China Sea, amid simmering tensions between Beijing and its neighbors.
After talks in Washington, the former war foes said that “the maintenance of peace, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is in the common interests of the international community.”
All territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved through a collaborative, diplomatic process without coercion or the use of force,” the two countries said in a joint statement.
Disputes have flared in recent weeks in the South China Sea, with Vietnam holding live-fire military exercises after accusing Chinese ships of ramming an oil survey ship and cutting the exploration cables of another one.
China staged its own three days of military exercises in the South China Sea, which state media said was aimed at boosting the country's offshore maritime patrol force.
“The US side reiterated that troubling incidents in recent months do not foster peace and stability within the region,” the statement said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a July 2010 visit to Vietnam that was closely watched around Asia, said that the United States had a vital national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
China has myriad disputes in the potentially resource-rich sea with countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines - which said Friday that it was sending its aging naval flagship into the disputed waters.
Amid the tensions, China said Tuesday that it would not resort to the use of force in the South China Sea and urged other countries to “do more for peace and stability in the region.”
In the statement, the United States and Vietnam threw their support for talks under the aegis of a 2002 agreement between China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which the two sides pledged to work on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
China and ASEAN have done little in the intervening nine years to reach the code. Diplomats say that the Chinese appear to favor one-on-one talks with each nation, fearing that ASEAN would gang up on them in a group setting.
Despite the memories of war, the United States and Vietnam have been rapidly building relations -- in part due to a spike in tensions between Beijing and Vietnam, which bitterly recalls 1,000 years of Chinese rule.
“The situation with the sovereignty issues in the South China Sea has actually helped our relationship in a sense that they understand that they have a commonality of interest,” Senator Jim Webb said at a conference Monday.
Webb, a former combat Marine in Vietnam, said that the United States needed to be firmer on disputes in the South China Sea. The United States officially does not take a position on disputes to which it is not party.
President Barack Obama's administration has put a focus on building ties with growing US-friendly nations in Southeast Asia and has enthusiastically welcomed the growing relationship with Vietnam, which includes military ties.
While mostly supportive of warmer ties, many members of Congress are sharply critical of Vietnam over its human rights record and demand progress in return for better ties. Human rights did not figure in the joint statement.
The annual US-Vietnam talks involved Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, and Vice Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.