Senator urges US action on South China Sea dispute

June 13, 2011 - 7:45 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States should condemn China's use of force and push for multilateral negotiations to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea that have raised tensions in the region, Sen. Jim Webb said Monday.

Vietnam fired live artillery rounds Monday off its central coast in naval drills staged after accusing Chinese boats of disrupting oil and gas exploration. A similar dispute flared last week between China and the Philippines.

The United States irked China last year by asserting that Washington had a national security interest in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, resource-rich waters where China has competing claims with several nations and territories and rejects outside interference. It maintains that the disputes should be handled bilaterally.

Webb, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate subcommittee overseeing American policy toward east Asia, said Vietnam and other countries were watching whether "we are going to back up those words with substantive action."

"That does not mean military confrontation, per se, but we have to make a clear signal," he told a Washington seminar organized by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Webb and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, introduced a Senate resolution Monday condemning China's actions. It supports continued operations by U.S. forces to defend freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and urges the United States to facilitate a multilateral process to settle the territorial disputes.

The U.S. diplomatic intervention last year was welcomed by countries in the region, most notably Vietnam, which has a historic rivalry with China. Vietnam and China fought a bloody border war in 1979.

The latest spat between the communist-led countries has prompted rare protests in Vietnam, which says Chinese boats cut a cable attached to a vessel conducting a seismic survey off its coast May 26 and hindered operations of another vessel June 9. China accuses Vietnam of illegally entering its waters and putting fishermen's lives at risk. It has not commented on Vietnam's naval drills.

Webb described China's actions as a clear interference in "proper activities by Vietnam."

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday that the recent incidents in the South China Sea had raised concerns about maritime security. He urged a collaborative diplomatic process to resolve the territorial disputes, saying that shows of force only served to raise tensions further.