US to host China army chief amid South China Sea tensions

 A Chinese ship (right) uses water cannon on a Vietnamese Sea Guard ship on the South China Sea near the Paracels islands, in this handout photo taken on May 3, 2014 and released by the Vietnamese Marine Guard on May 8, 2014. China's milita
 A Chinese ship (right) uses water cannon on a Vietnamese Sea Guard ship on the South China Sea near the Paracels islands, in this handout photo taken on May 3, 2014 and released by the Vietnamese Marine Guard on May 8, 2014. China's military chief will tour American warships on Tuesday in a four-day US visit that comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors over territorial disputes. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - China's military chief will tour American warships on Tuesday in a four-day US visit that comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors over territorial disputes.

An escalating maritime feud between China and Vietnam is expected to come up when General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People's Liberation Army general staff, holds talks this week with his counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, US officials said.

Tensions between China and Vietnam spiked after Beijing said it would relocate a deep-water oil rig to a disputed area of the South China Sea, with Hanoi saying Chinese vessels rammed its patrol ships and turned water cannon on them.

China has rejected criticism from Washington over its dispute with Vietnam as "irresponsible" while a US diplomat has voiced concern about "dangerous conduct at sea". China's clash with Vietnam is the latest in a series of disagreements between Beijing and its Asian neighbours over territory in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

The United States, anxious about Beijing's growing military might in the strategic area, has suggested China engaged in intimidation of its neighbours and has bolstered its defence ties in the region.

The Pentagon said the visit by the Chinese general was designed to deepen relations between the two countries' militaries, as it comes after a similar visit to China last year by Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"General Dempsey looks forward to the opportunity to meet again with General Fang and to continue their conversation on improving our mil-to-mil relationship," press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Friday.

Gen Fang's trip begins in San Diego, where he will visit an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, a new littoral combat ship, the USS Coronado, and a Marine Corps recruitment depot. The Chinese are keenly interested in aircraft carriers and naval aviation after recently launching their first carrier, the Liaoning.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel got a tour of the ship during a trip to China in April.

On Thursday, the US military will roll out the red carpet for Gen Fang with a full honours ceremony at the Pentagon, where he will hold talks with Dempsey and then take part in a joint press conference.

The Chinese officer is also due to travel to Fort Bragg, North Carolina before wrapping up his trip in New York.