Updated: 12/17/2013 05:35 | By Agence France-Presse

US offers new support for Vietnam maritime security

Secretary of State John Kerry  said Monday the United States would help Vietnam and other countries police their seas better amid territorial disputes with China, as he met top leaders in Hanoi.

US offers new support for Vietnam maritime security

John Kerry (L) is greeted by Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong as they meet at VCP's HQ in Hanoi on December 16, 2013

Kerry, who arrived on Saturday on a trip aimed at shoring up ties with Southeast Asia, said the US would provide $32.5 million to help regional nations including Vietnam patrol "territorial waters".

"Peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us," Kerry said, adding that "no region can be secure in the absence of effective law enforcement in territorial waters". 

Speaking to reporters in Hanoi alongside Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, the one-time presidential hopeful said his government's support would include training and new fast patrol vessels for coastguards.

But he also carried warnings over Vietnam's human rights record.

Washington is eager to underscore its commitment to Asia. Its eastwards "pivot" policy was shaken earlier this year when the US government shutdown forced President Barack Obama to cancel a trip to the region, allowing China to occupy centre stage at regional summits.

The region is beset by political and territorial tensions, including bitter maritime disputes between an increasingly assertive China and a number of its neighbours including Vietnam.

China and Vietnam, which fought a brief border war in 1979, are locked in a longstanding territorial dispute over the South China Sea, and frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which both countries claim.

Vietnam's authoritarian rulers have also been struggling to control intense domestic criticism of their handling of relations with Beijing.

Kerry repeated the US standpoint that it is "strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims", and said the US was particularly concerned about the situation in the East China Sea.

China raised regional tensions with its declaration on November 23 of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, which covers islands at the centre of a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo.

"This move clearly increases the risk of a dangerous miscalculation or an accident and it could escalate tensions even further," Kerry said. 

"The US does not recognise that zone and does not accept it. China's announcement will not change how the US conducts military operations in the region," he added. 

"The zone should not be implemented and China should refrain from taking similar, unilateral actions elsewhere in the region, in particular over the South China Sea," he said.

However, he added the new pledge to help Vietnam's maritime security had "nothing to do with" China's move, but was "part of a gradual and deliberate expansion (of support) that has been planned for some period of time".

China claims sovereign rights to almost the whole of the South China Sea, believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. The sea is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Kerry will meet Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung later Monday.

He hailed deepening trade and security ties between the former foes, but said in order to capitalise on the relationship, Vietnam "needs to show continued progress on human rights and freedoms, including freedoms of religion, expression and freedom of association".

Kerry said he had raised "individual cases" of political prisoners on which the US would like to see progress.

On Tuesday he will head to the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, where he will tour the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban.

Vietnam veteran Kerry served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant. He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, awarded for combat injuries, as well as a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for bravery.

It was on his return after two tours of duty that he became a fierce campaigner against the war, which ended in 1975.

Kerry, who celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday, said he was excited to have returned to Vietnam, his first time back in the communist country since he joined President Bill Clinton on his landmark visit in 2000.

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