Hanoi: A US official on Thursday questioned China's intentions with its massive land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and urged it to follow international laws.
"The United States and Vietnam share an interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region," said US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken. "So does China. But its massive land reclamation project in the South China Sea and increasing militarization of these outposts fuel regional tension and raise serious questions about China's intentions."
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, an area that contains some of the world's busiest sea lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. Its claim is disputed by other countries in the region, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
"The United States will defend our national interest and support our allies and partners in the region. We are not looking for bases, but we will continue to sail, to fly, to operate anywhere that international laws allow," Blinken said in a speech at Vietnam's National University in Hanoi.
Amid tensions over China's reclamation work — including the construction of airstrips, ports and radar stations and the positioning of surface-to-air missiles on at least one new island — Beijing's Defense Ministry on Thursday appeared to confirm a test of an intercontinental missile.
A three-sentence statement posted on the ministry's website posed the question of whether China had fired an ICBM "in the South China Sea area."
In its response, the ministry said China maintains that "technological research experiments conducted according to plan within China's boundaries are normal and are not aimed at any specific nations or targets" — a standard ministry response to questions about testing of military hardware.
The statement follows a report in the US newspaper Washington Free Beacon that quoted unidentified Pentagon officials as saying China tested its longest-range DF-41 missile with two multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles on Tuesday. The report did not say where the test took place, but referenced recent tensions between China and the US over Beijing's actions to shore up its claims to the South China Sea.
Chinese military analyst Ni Lexiong said the ministry appeared to be seeking to advertise China's capabilities and boldness while leaving room for speculation about its actions and intentions.
That approach aims to show that China is "prepared for conflicts and even combat, though unwilling to see it actually happen," said Ni, who teaches at Shanghai's University of Political Science and Law.
Blinken said the United States welcomes China's peaceful rise and that he hopes China will "act in accordance with international norms and rules and laws," because that would benefit China as well as other countries.
Ignoring those rules and laws would alienate many countries and diminish, not expand, China's power over time, he said.
Blinken's trip comes ahead of a visit by President Barack Obama to Hanoi in late May. Obama is expected to discuss a range of issues including the South China Sea and human rights.
Blinken said the Vietnamese government should release all political prisoners and stop arresting people who are "exercising their internationally recognized rights."