• Reuters, Kyodo

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U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter pledged $18 million Sunday to help Vietnam buy U.S. patrol boats, shortly after touring a Vietnamese coast guard vessel that was hit by a Chinese ship during a skirmish in the South China Sea.

Carter, who has been focusing on maritime security during an 11-day trip to the Asia-Pacific, visited the Vietnamese navy headquarters and coast guard headquarters before boarding the ship.

Carter is on his second visit to Asia since becoming defense secretary earlier this year. He said he planned to sign a “vision statement” later Monday with his Vietnamese counterpart to guide the expansion of bilateral military ties.

“We need to modernize our partnership,” Carter told reporters during a visit to the northern city of Hai Phong. “After 20 years, there is more we could do together.”

As part of that effort, he said Washington would provide $18 million to help Vietnam buy U.S.-made Metal Shark patrol boats to help Hanoi improve its maritime defense capabilities.

U.S. and Vietnamese navies had been “building habits of cooperation” by working together, he said. In April they conducted exercises under rules laid out in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a set of regulations approved by multiple maritime nations last year at a meeting in China.

Carter opened his trip to the Asia-Pacific by calling for all countries to stop island-building efforts in disputed, resource-rich regions of the South China Sea. He reiterated that call at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference Saturday.

Carter recognized that several countries, including Vietnam, had conducted land reclamation projects in the region but said Chinese activity, covering some 2,000 acres (810 hectares), had outstripped the others and raised questions about Beijing’s long-term intentions.

“I will be discussing further with Vietnam the proposal that I was talking about in Singapore, namely for all of the claimants to these disputed areas of the South China Sea . . . permanently to halt reclamations,” he said.

The Vietnamese coast guard vessel toured by Carter was targeted with Chinese water cannons and rammed by a Chinese ship during a confrontation last year.

The incident occurred after China moved an oil drilling rig into waters claimed by Vietnam. The rig remained for about two months protected by Chinese navy vessels, which were repeatedly challenged by Vietnamese ships.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s deputy defense minister said in Singapore on Saturday that the support of the international community is vital if the South China Sea territorial dispute is to be resolved peacefully.

“I think the international community needs to have a voice. The voice is very important to being able to peacefully resolve the situation,” said Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh.

Alluding to China’s increasingly assertive activities on disputed territory in the area, he said the “escalation of such activities is worsening the situation and creating concern for all parties.”

But on a positive note, he said, “Almost all countries with an interest in the Asia-Pacific region have shown their rightful concern in resolving the situation in the South China Sea in a transparent manner . . . according to international law.”

He said he aired Vietnam’s concern over the situation in the South China Sea in his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the forum with the leader of China’s delegation, Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

“It was an opportunity for the two sides to discuss the things that remain unresolved in the relations between our two countries in a frank and constructive manner including on the South China Sea issue.”

“However we expressed our concern in a frank and also very constructive manner with a view that the defense relationship will not endanger the situation but promote and contribute to the relationship between the two countries and help de-escalate tension,” he said.

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