US, China spar again on South China Sea disputes

WASHINGTON/BEIJING (REUTERS) - China hit back at the United States over the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, after US Secretary of State John Kerry said recent Chinese moves in the waters were "provocative".

Tensions rose in the resource-rich sea last week after China moved a giant oil rig into an area also claimed by Vietnam. Each country accused the other of ramming its ships near the disputed Paracel Islands.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

"He (Kerry) said China's introduction of an oil rig and numerous government vessels in waters disputed with Vietnam was provocative," US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said. "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."

China's foreign ministry said there certainly had been provocative moves in the South China Sea, but that China was not the guilty party and repeated that it was the US's fault for encouraging such behaviour.

"We hope that the US side can carefully reflect - if they really hope for the Pacific Ocean to be peaceful, what kind of role do they actually want to play?" spokesman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

China says that the South China Sea issue should be resolved via direct talks between the parties concerned, and has bristled at what it sees as unwarranted US interference.

China has also looked askance at the US "pivot" back to Asia, especially Washington's efforts to boost existing military links with Tokyo and Manila.

In separate remarks to visiting Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, Kerry said the US was deeply concerned by China's "aggressive act".

"We are particularly concerned - all nations that are engaged in navigation and traffic within the South China Sea, the East China Sea, are deeply concerned about this aggressive act," Kerry said in the Monday meeting.

"We want to see a code of conduct created; we want to see this resolved peacefully through the Law of the Sea, through arbitration, through any other means, but not direct confrontation and aggressive action," Kerry added, according to a transcript of his comments released by the State Department.

Speaking to fellow leaders of the Asean at a summit on Sunday, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said Vietnam had acted with "utmost restraint" and used all means of dialogue to request China remove the rig.

Dung said China was slandering his country and committing dangerous violations.

However the communique issued at the end of the summit by the 10-nation Asean group contained no criticism of China.

Vietnamese state media said that Vietnamese and Chinese ships had again used water cannon on each other on Monday, though there were no injuries.

Chinese spokesman Hua would neither confirm nor deny the new face-off, repeating that China was urging Vietnam to "end its provocative actions" and withdraw its ships.