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.
The United States is "very concerned about recent actions that have increased tensions between China and Japan and we call for intensified negotiations and diplomatic initiatives. This move clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident, and it could escalate tensions even further," he said.
"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 zones would not affect U.S. military operations in the region.
Beijing 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. The Chinese navy is operating with increasing frequency in the South China Sea and around Japan as part of China's development of its blue water navy.
Kerry said the U.S. was "very concerned by" and opposed to any kind of coercive action in the South China Sea disputes, and he urged China and Japan to engage in "intensive diplomatic" discussions to ease tension and resolve their dispute over territories in the East China Sea.
Tensions were highlighted earlier this month when a Chinese warship nearly collided with an American cruiser in the South China Sea. The U.S. Pacific Fleet has said the USS Cowpens was operating in international waters and had to maneuver to avoid hitting China's lone aircraft carrier, Liaoning, on Dec. 5.
However, China's 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 defense layer."
China vigorously opposes all U.S. Naval activity and intelligence gathering in the region. The Pacific Fleet says it's not uncommon for navies to operate in close proximity, and that's why it is paramount they all follow international standards for maritime "rules of the road."
The U.S. has said repeatedly that it does not have a position on the competing sovereignty claims, but it has said that freedom of navigation in one of the world's busiest commercial maritime shipping zones is a national security interest and insists on its Navy's right to transit the area and collect surveillance data.
The Obama administration has been urging China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to adopt binding rules of conduct for activity in the South China Sea.
In addition to maritime security, Kerry, who is on his 14th visit to Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975 but his first as secretary of state, pressed Vietnamese officials to release political prisoners and improve its human rights record, particularly on religious and Internet freedoms.
Kerry said the United States was pleased that limited progress had been made in those areas but wanted to see more.
"Vietnam needs to show continued progress on human rights and freedoms, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of association," he said.
Kerry noted that without reforms, members of Congress would likely oppose expanded engagement with Vietnam, including its participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership and the implementation of a recently concluded civilian nuclear agreement.
Kerry added that he had raised the cases of specific political prisoners and had a "very direct and healthy" exchange.
Minh, the foreign minister, allowed that there are differences between Hanoi and Washington on human rights but said they would be addressed through dialogue.
Free-market economic reforms will also be critical to overall improvement in U.S.-Vietnamese relations as well as to Hanoi reaping full benefits of a the Trans Pacific Partnership, which the U.S. is negotiating with 11 Asia-Pacific nations, including Vietnam, according to American officials.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummit contributed to this report.