HONG KONG—Southeast Asian countries view the United States as balancing Chinese power in East Asia, as both Beijing and Washington launch military exercises in the region, experts say.
As a U.S. naval vessel visited Vietnam, analysts said regional tensions focused on the South China and Yellow Seas are unlikely to abate for some time.
"We plan to develop our navy," said Vietnamese Navy Captain Quach Hai Luong during a recent visit by the USS John S. McCain, which took part in low-key exercises with the Vietnamese navy.
"Strengthening national defenses to protect the country's need for development is a legitimate right," he said.
He said the U.S. shares Vietnam's concerns about regional peace and cooperation. "Vietnam is very happy to cooperate with large countries, not only the U.S., but also with Russia and other countries in the world," he added.
Macau-based military affairs analyst Huang Dong said China's increased naval presence in the region is causing growing concern both to its neighbors and to Washington.
"China's naval presence has grown, especially in the South China Sea, and Hainan Island is going to become a key military base for them," Huang said. "Japan has already said it is concerned about [the base], so of course the United States must also be concerned."
"This has meant that U.S.-Vietnam relations have to go up a level," he said.
A Vietnamese border-guard officer looks out toward the USS John S. McCain at port in Danang, Aug. 10, 2010. Credit: AFP
Huang said Southeast Asian countries now see the United States as key to balancing Chinese power in the region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has never acquired the necessary cohesion to do so, he said.
"They rely on China's mighty economic power to boost their own economic development, so they don't want to lock horns with China," he said.
"They are hoping that the U.S. will come out and do it for them, as long as it doesn't cause any serious regional clashes."
He said that decades of harsh diplomatic rhetoric and military exercises over issues like the disputed Spratly and Paracel Island chains, and the future of Taiwan, have helped to create great fear and tension among China's smaller neighbors.
"It's not a good outcome for China if this pushes them closer to the United States," Huang said.
Hong Kong-based Chinese political commentator Willy Lam said he believes the standoff in the Asia-Pacific region between the U.S. and China will continue for some time.
"This rather tense situation is likely to continue for a while, especially with regard to the South China Sea, with military exercises," Lam said.
"The U.S. already has joint military exercises with Vietnam ... we are likely to see increased military cooperation with other Southeast Asian countries, for example in the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia—other countries that have claims on the Spratly and Paracel Islands."
Meanwhile, former rear admiral in the South Vietnamese navy Dinh Manh Hung, speaking from the United States where he currently lives, said the latest developments represent "very good progress" in U.S.-Vietnamese ties.
"The South China Sea is a very complex issue, and China will have a stronger resolve to occupy that area," he said.
"This is not really acceptable, because Vietnam, with its small navy, can hardly protect their own territorial waters in the South China Sea."Increased rhetoric
Chinese official rhetoric has grown increasingly harsh in the wake of U.S. diplomatic and military forays in the region.
Chinese defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said last week that recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were an unwelcome attempt at "internationalizating" a territorial issue.
The PLA followed up with large-scale military exercises near the islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Lam said he believes Chinese president Hu Jintao will be unlikely to make a state visit to the United States before the year's end, as relations with Washington grow colder.
"They keep putting off the date," Lam said. "It's fairly clear now that this will be postponed further—until the end of the year at the earliest—and it's even possible that it won't happen now until next year."
Washington announced last week that it is sending the USS George Washington supercarrier, which participated in last month's joint drills between the U.S. and South Korea in the Sea of Japan, to the Yellow Sea for an exercise code-named Ulchi Freedom Guardian from Aug. 16-26.
The move has already sparked harsh criticism in the official Chinese media and in Internet discussions. Beijing responded by scheduling intensified military exercises in the Yellow Sea involving several military commands and all three of its fleets.Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service and by Do Hieu for RFA's Vietnamese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.