HANOI (AFP) — The United States is giving Vietnam’s coast guard a second cutter vessel, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday, vowing to maintain a routine military presence in the flashpoint South China Sea.
The new security ship “represents another concrete symbol of our strengthening relationship,” Esper said at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam after a tour of South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.
Washington wants to counter Beijing’s expanding influence in the region, where the fiercely contested South China Sea is a source of major tension.
China has built military installations, rammed vessels and sent survey ships into disputed territory in the resource-rich waterway, parts of which are claimed by several other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam.
The United States has staged so-called “freedom of navigation” forays in the waters and the first-ever joint maritime drills with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year.
Esper, who was confirmed as defense secretary in July, said similar activities will continue.
“We will also maintain a routine military presence in the South China Sea, to demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment,” he said, adding that the United States will “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows”.
Esper and his Chinese counterpart met at a security summit in Bangkok on Monday.
In a briefing afterward, Wu Qian, a spokesman for Chinese Ministry of National Defense, urged the United States to “stop military provocation in the South China Sea.”
The cutter vessel, which will be handed over next year, is the latest example of ramped up political and defense links between the United States and Vietnam.
Already this year Washington has handed over six patrol boats and equipment worth $12 million, the third of a planned four deliveries.
Security and trade ties between the former wartime foes deepened after Washington and Hanoi restored diplomatic ties in 1995.
© Agence France-Presse