A top Chinese general visiting the United States on Thursday defended the deployment of an oil rig that has inflamed tensions in the disputed South China Sea and triggered deadly protests in Vietnam. Gen. Fang Fenghui blamed Hanoi, and said China cannot afford to "lose an inch" of territory.
Fang also blamed President Barack Obama's strategic "pivot" to Asia, as Vietnam and China grapple with one of their worst breakdowns in relations since the two countries fought a brief border war in 1979.
Anti-China violence broke out in Vietnam after China towed an oil rig into waters claimed by both countries. Up to 21 people have been killed in the riots, and a large foreign steel project has been set ablaze.
Fang said some Asian nations had seized on Obama's vows to rebalance military and diplomatic assets to Asia as an opportunity to create trouble in the South and East China Seas.
Fang, chief of the general staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, said during a visit to Washington that the oil-drilling rig was operating in China's territorial waters — activity he vowed to protect.
Standing at the Pentagon alongside the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, Fang said Vietnam was stirring up trouble by dispatching ships in an attempt to disrupt Chinese drilling activity. "I think it's quite clear ... who is conducting normal activity and who is disrupting it," Fang said, speaking through an interpreter.
Alarmed at China's military rise and growing assertiveness, Vietnam has broadened its military relationships in recent years, most notably with Cold War-era patron Russia but also with Washington.
China claims almost all of the oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. In the East China Sea, Beijing is locked in an increasingly bitter territorial dispute with Japan.
The ramped-up rhetoric from China prompted Vice President Joe Biden to tell the visiting Chinese army chief that Beijing's actions in the maritime disputes were "dangerous and provocative,” according to a U.S. official.
The U.S. official, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said China's actions in maritime disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea are straining U.S.-China relations and raise questions on whether Washington can work together with Beijing in Asia and on bilateral issues.
Washington is in close contact with the Vietnamese government on "how most effectively to manage" Hanoi's standoff with Beijing, the official told Reuters.