The United States will give Vietnam's coast guard a second cutter vessel, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on Wednesday in the latest show of deepening security ties between Washington and Hanoi, who share a concern about China's actions in the South China Sea.
The offer of a cutter vessel, which will be delivered in 2020, follows Vietnam's receipt of six patrol boats and equipment worth $12 million this year.
The new security ship "represents another concrete symbol of our strengthening relationship", Esper told students at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, according to Reuters news agency.
"China's unilateral efforts to assert illegitimate maritime claims threaten other nations' access to vital natural resources, undermine the stability of regional energy markets, and increase the risk of conflict," Esper said.
Esper-who also visited South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines-highlighted America' so-called "freedom of navigation" passages through South China Sea waters and the first-ever joint maritime drills with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year.
"We will also maintain a routine military presence in the South China Sea, to demonstrate the seriousness of our commitment," he said, adding that the US will "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows".
On Tuesday in Manila, Esper urged Southeast Asian nations affected by China's claims in the disputed sea region to publicly assert their territorial rights.
"I think it's incumbent upon all of us to take a very public posture and to assert our sovereign rights and to emphasize the importance of law," he said.
ASEAN meetings in the Thai capital ended on Monday amid concerns over Beijing's increasingly assertive actions in the sea region.
These were highlighted this week by a Chinese move to deploy its first domestically-built aircraft carrier to the disputed waters after the ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait as part of "equipment tests and routine training," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
On Monday, Esper met in Bangkok with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, who urged Washington to "stop flexing muscles" in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which about U.S. $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own claims to parts of those waters.
While in principle all of the claimants have agreed to refrain from carrying out actions that would further inflame respective territorial disputes, Beijing raised regional tensions in recent years after it transformed contested shoals into missile-protected islands, with military-grade runways on three reefs.
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