WASHINGTON, D.C.: US Vice President Joe Biden voiced “serious concern” Thursday about Beijing’s actions in the disputed South China Sea, as a top Chinese general vowed to protect an oil rig that has triggered deadly protests in Vietnam.
Tensions between China and Vietnam flared earlier this month after Beijing moved the deepwater drilling rig into waters that Hanoi claims, and a Chinese worker was killed and at least 149 people injured when a riot broke out this week in Vietnam’s central Ha Tinh province.
China accused Hanoi of acting in concert with protesters who hit the streets in major Vietnamese cities, mobs torching foreign-owned factories, as long-simmering enmity between the communist neighbors boiled over on the streets.
Washington, which this week hosted Chinese General Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the resources-rich South China Sea, where several countries and territories have overlapping claims.
Biden and Fang met at the White House, where “the vice president underscored the United States’ serious concern about China’s unilateral actions in waters disputed with Vietnam,” his office said in a statement.
“The vice president reaffirmed that while the United States does not take a position on the competing territorial claims, no nation should take provocative steps to advance claims over disputed areas in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region,” it added.
Biden’s unusually strong comments were the latest in a string coming out of the US the same day.
While Fang held talks at the Pentagon, the US State Depart–ment reiterated its criticism of China’s “provocative” decision to install the oil rig.
“We are very concerned about dangerous conduct and intimida–tion of this kind,” deputy spokes–woman Marie Harf told reporters.
Erecting the rig “is a unilateral action that appears to be part of a broader pattern, quite frankly, of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed areas in a manner that really undermines peace and stability in the region,” Harf said.
Not able to accept
But Fang said China would continue to operate the rig — near a contested island — in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety, bringing it into dispute with several of his neighbors.
“What we’re going to do is ensure the safety of the oil rig and ensure the operation will keep going on,” Fang told a news conference after talks at the Pentagon.
Vietnam had sent in ships to try to disrupt the drilling, he said through an interpreter, “and that is something that we are not able to accept.”
Hanoi has alleged Chinese vessels rammed its patrol ships and turned water cannons on them.
But Fang said China had taken a “prudent” approach in the South China Sea and only now had set up the oil rig after other countries in the region already had started drilling.
“I don’t believe there is any problem with China doing this drilling activity within its own territorial waters,” the general said at a joint press briefing with his US counterpart, General Martin Dempsey.
Fang gave a detailed defense of Beijing’s stance in various maritime disputes, accusing Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines of taking provocative measures.
He also suggested America’s strategic “rebalance” to Asia had been exploited by some countries who wanted to check China’s growing economic power.
It came after worker demon–strations spread to 22 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces, according to the Vietnamese government, which called for “tough measures” to bring the escalating situation under control before alarmed foreign investors pull out of the country.
Hundreds of Chinese nationals have fled across the border into neighboring Cambodia, according to police there, amid fears that a wave of patriotic fervor initially encouraged by Hanoi is getting out of hand.
Vietnam’s communist regime, wary of public gatherings that could threaten its authoritarian rule, has in the past alternated between tolerating anti-China rallies and violently breaking them up.
There is a history of rivalry between China and Vietnam, particularly over the contested Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea.
The rising tension ups the stakes too for the United States.
“I think this poses a huge dilemma for the United States,” Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security, said of the violence in Vietnam.
“It’s not enough to have a strategic dialogue between Hanoi and Washington. We really have to reassure the Vietnamese public—not just the government—that there are going to be agreed-upon rules and that Vietnam will not be victimized,” he added.