THE United States expressed serious concern over the flaring dispute between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, a day after Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung said he had "exhausted all dialogue channels with China".
Admiral Samuel Locklear III, the top US military commander for the Asia-Pacific, told The Straits Times that he feared the "risk of miscalculation is high".
He was responding to questions on whether an incident at sea could lead to a wider conflagration between China and Vietnam, which last fought a war in 1979.
"I have serious concerns," he said, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) East Asia Summit.
China has placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as its exclusive economic zone and is said to have sent 130 escort ships there. Meanwhile, Hanoi has over a dozen navy ships surrounding the rig. There has been talk of vessels of the rival sides rubbing up against each other, raising fears that an angry captain might take the covers off his cannon with catastrophic consequences.
Mr Dung himself warned on Thursday that the risk of instability was rising, with "unforeseeable consequences". He also dropped hints that Vietnam might take the issue to the United Nations, a move sure to further anger a China already annoyed by Manila's taking its maritime dispute with Beijing to international courts.
"I believe that we should encourage both parties to exercise restraint and to deal with these types of issues through normal vehicles - international laws, international platforms - to be able to resolve this," Admiral Locklear said.
Vietnam-US ties have progressed significantly in recent times, four decades after the United States withdrew from Vietnam after a protracted war. Earlier this month, as Vietnam's dispute with China escalated dramatically, the US Navy renewed calls for deeper naval engagement with Vietnam in the form of more extensive exercises and more ship visits.
Admiral Locklear suggested that a US-Vietnam strategic alliance was possible.
"The US is pursuing alliances and strategic partnerships and we have a growing number of them," he said. "We look forward to exploring opportunities to expand our partnership with nations such as Vietnam, but Vietnam is among many."
At a WEF panel yesterday, he gave his take on other security hot spots in the region, from a nuclear sabre-rattling North Korea to a Russia hungry to take its spot on the global stage.
One new challenge that has emerged is cyberspace security, he said. He called for dialogue, "not just about oceans, air space and land mass, but also how we operate in the cyberspace. And that has to be extrapolated into space as well".
But did the US, with its "Asia pivot", not play a role in heightening tensions, asked a participant.
In replying, the admiral spoke about the effect of US involvement in the region for the past 70 years. "Through its presence, it helped maintain the global economy on an even keel, which allowed various economies - including China - to grow," he argued.
A rising China coming to a "fairly mature security environment" may not be happy with its rules. But, he said, "the US position is to welcome them as a productive partner".