China is stepping up provocative actions and harsh rhetoric in maritime disputes in the South China Sea as Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traded words on the growing tensions.
Chinese maritime police ships fired water cannons on Vietnamese fishing boats on Tuesday near a Chinese oil-drilling rig that was towed recently to the disputed Paracel islands, which is claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Earlier, Vietnamese fishing vessels collided with a Chinese frigate that was part of the ship convoy moving the oil rig.
Kerry, in a telephone conversation with Wang Monday, "emphasized our strong concerns over recent developments in the South China Sea," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
"China’s introduction of an oil rig and numerous government vessels in waters disputed with Vietnam was provocative," she added in a statement on the conversation. "He urged both sides to de-escalate tensions, ensure safe conduct by their vessels at sea, and resolve the dispute through peaceful means in accordance with international law."
The latest dispute began May 2, when China towed a large oil rig into waters near the Paracels that Vietnam says are part of its exclusive economic zone. The action set off a tit-for-tat exchange of ship maneuvers that is now at an impasse.
China shot back Tuesday that it was the United States that is causing trouble in the region by emboldening its friends to protest the Chinese actions.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a briefing Tuesday that "it is the U.S. coming in and making a series of erroneous remarks about the issue in the waters, encouraging certain countries' threatening and provocative behavior."
According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Wang "briefed" Kerry on the "historical context, fact, and China’s stand." The foreign minister urged the United States to "avoid encouraging some parties concerned to take provocative acts."
Psaki told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. criticism is focused on Beijing’s "unilateral action."
"That appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed areas in a matter that, in our view, undermines peace and stability in the region," she said, declining to say whether the diplomatic exchange was heated or not.
The latest Chinese actions in the region followed Beijing’s imposition of new rules Jan. 1 that require all non-Chinese fishing vessels to first obtain approval from China before fishing or operating in most of the South China Sea.
China has imposed what it calls a "nine-dash line" over the Sea as its maritime territory, a claim that covers most of the waters, contrary to claims by Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
In December, a Chinese naval vessel nearly collided with the USS Cowpens, a guided missile cruiser, in the South China Sea as the U.S. warship was monitoring China’s first aircraft carrier near Hainan Island. Defense officials called the Chinese naval encounter provocative.
China also increased tensions in the East China Sea by unilaterally imposing an air defense identification zone over those waters, overlapping air zones of both Japan and South Korea. Beijing also threatened aircraft that violated the air zone.
In Vietnam on Sunday, protest demonstrations against China were held in several cities, an infrequently permitted show of displeasure against Beijing by the communist government.
Vietnamese authorities told state media that several fishing boats were attacked by Chinese warships and speedboats and robbed of their catch.
"Crewmen from the Chinese speedboats jumped into [one] vessel, used electrified shock batons to beat the fishermen, destroyed all communication devices, and took away all the collected sea cucumbers on board," Nguyen Quoc Chinh, chairman of An Hai fishing union told VietNamNet Bridge online news service Monday.
The Chinese government has taken an unusually hardline stance against Vietnam, undermining relations that Beijing had sought to improve over the past several years, according to U.S. officials.
China also in recent days increased its official invective at the Philippines. Last week Philippines authorities arrested 11 Chinese fishermen near Half Moon Shoal, a part of the disputed Spratly Islands that China is claiming as its territory.
"The Philippines has singled itself out as a determined challenger of Chinese national interests and the devoted hatchet man of foreign anti-China forces," the state-run China Daily said, adding that Manila could pay an "unaffordable price" for opposing China.
The official military newspaper Liberation Army Daily warned the Philippines would be forced to "taste its own medicine" for "provocations."
John Tkacik, a former State Department China hand, said the U.S. response to the latest South China Sea tensions appeared to be one of surprise.
"But I know the Pentagon under both Defense Secretaries [Robert] Gates and [Leon] Panetta as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saw this coming, and had their act together," Tkacik said.
Clinton drew a line four years ago, offering a firm assurance to the Southeast Asian nations and saying the United States supports a legal, international resolution of South China Sea territorial disputes. The comments drew a harsh rebuke from Beijing.
China’s maritime bullying then prompted the U.S. pivot to Asia that China has criticized.
"The Obama administration risks letting this spin out of control if it doesn't display a muscular naval presence just to remind the Chinese that they don't own the South China Sea, yet," Tkacik said.
Tkacik criticized the weak U.S. response to Beijing’s recent actions and rhetoric, which has included one Chinese spokesman calling U.S. comments "irresponsible" and saying the United States needs to "watch its mouth."
"Washington really needs to dish out the same toughness that Beijing is throwing in its face," he said. "Kerry looks weak when he lets the Chinese talk to him that way without his own strong pushback."
"President Obama has to remind China that it undertook a commitment in 2002 to avoid provocative behavior in the South China Sea, and explicitly condemn Beijing for fomenting a crisis."
China and Vietnam engaged in a brief border war in 1979 and have clashed over disputed fishing territory in the South China Sea.
Yi Xianliang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry ocean affairs official, was quoted by Xinhua on Sunday defending what he said were "normal drilling activities" near the Paracels.
"The Chinese company's operations in waters near China's Xisha [Paracels] Islands fall completely within the scope of China's sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction," Yi said. "The Vietnamese side's disruption of the Chinese company's normal activity has seriously violated China's sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction and seriously affected normal production operations order and the Chinese side's operating rig safety. It is a completely unnecessary disturbance to China-Vietnam relations."
The Vietnamese disruptions prompted China to "beef up security forces at the scene to stop the Vietnamese side's disruptive behavior so as to safeguard production operations order at sea and ensure navigation safety."