BEIJING (AP) — Improved relations between the U.S. and Vietnam must not lead to greater pressure on China or threats to its interests, an official Chinese newspaper said Tuesday.
While China applauds the spirit of reconciliation between Hanoi and Washington, "whatever common interests the two countries pursue, they should never compromise China's national interests and threaten regional security," the English-language China Daily said in an editorial.
The comments point to Beijing's underlying concerns about closer ties between its chief regional rival and its southern neighbor, with which it is in dispute over ownership of islands in the South China Sea.
Any attempt to enlist Vietnam in an effort to contain China "bodes ill for regional peace and stability, as it would further complicate the situation in the South China Sea, and risk turning the region into a tinderbox of conflicts," the newspaper said.
China on Monday formally welcomed Washington's decision to fully lift a five-decade arms embargo on Vietnam during a visit by President Barack Obama, saying it is happy to see Vietnam develop "normal and friendly cooperative relationships with all other countries, including the United States."
China has looked on warily as the U.S. and Vietnam have steadily strengthened their relationship in recent years, in line with growing Vietnamese concern over Chinese moves to assert its maritime claims.
Despite being fraternal Communist neighbors, China and Vietnam fought a border war in 1979, and clashes in 1988 over their conflicting claims in the South China Sea killed dozens of people. The tensions reared again in 2014, when China parked an oil rig off Vietnam's central coast, sparking confrontations at sea and deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
While the China Daily noted Obama's assertion that lifting the arms embargo had nothing to do with China, the outspoken nationalist tabloid Global Times dismissed that notion outright, calling it a "very poor lie which reveals the truth — exacerbating the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing."
The U.S. is "taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea," the newspaper said.
In Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Obama's insistence that the lifting of the arms embargo was not intended to target China.
"Nothing that we did here or are doing here is focused on China," Kerry told reporters, adding that removing the embargo was not unusual but rather reflective of a new normalcy in U.S. relations with Vietnam. "It was not out of order and certainly not inflammatory."
Asked about a Chinese warning against the U.S. and Vietnam creating a "tinderbox" that could lead to regional conflict, Kerry pushed back, saying that it was China's actions in the South and East China Seas that could create a tinderbox.
"I would caution China to not unilaterally move to engage in reclamation activities and militarization of islands," he said.
The Pentagon says China has reclaimed more than 1,295 hectares (3,200 acres) of land in the southeastern South China Sea and is developing and building military installations on the manmade islands.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, contributed to this report.