Hanoi/Rancho Mirage: Vietnam's prime minister has urged a greater US role in preventing militarisation and island-building in the South China Sea, the government said on Tuesday, in a rare call for Washington's support to curb Beijing's maritime expansionism.
During a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in California on Monday, premier Nguyen Tan Dung suggested to US President Barack Obama that Washington uses a stronger voice and "more practical and more efficient actions", in comments likely to rile China.
Tension has spiked since Beijing's construction of seven islands in the Spratly archipelago.
"Prime Minister Dung suggested the United States has a stronger voice and more practical and more efficient actions requesting termination of all activities changing the status quo," the government said on its news website.
The statement did not specifically name China, but it said Dung was referring especially to "large-scale construction of artificial islands" and "militarisation".
With a large U-shaped line on its official maps, China claims most of the South China Sea. Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam have rival claims.
Obama and allies from Southeast Asia will turn their attention to China on the second day of a summit intended to improve trade and provide a united front on maritime disputes with Beijing.
Whereas China accuses the United States of seeking maritime hegemony in Asia, Washington says its interest in the South China Sea is preserving freedom of navigation.
In recent months, the United States raised the stakes by sending guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen and USS Curtis Wilbur close to disputed areas occupied by Beijing.
Though communist Vietnam routinely opposes China's activities in disputed waters, its leaders are usually wary of provoking a giant neighbour with which it shares over $60 billion of annual trade and maintains close ideological ties.
Dung has earned popularity in Vietnam for pursuing stronger US trade and defence links and for taking a tougher line against China, compared to measured responses by other Vietnamese leaders to Beijing's assertiveness.
Dung was controversially overlooked by the politburo last month in its nomination for party chief, meaning the end of his political career when his term ends this year, posing a possible blow for Washington.
Dung also asked Obama to fully lift a lethal arms embargo on Vietnam, which would be an "important way to strengthen political trust", the government website quoted him saying.
Obama will visit Vietnam in May, the White House said.
After a first day focused on trade and economic issues, Obama and his counterparts from the ASEAN will try to arrive at a common position on the South China Sea.
China and several ASEAN states have conflicting and overlapping claims in the South China Sea, but not all the Southeast Asian nations agree on how to handle them.
US officials want the summit to produce a statement calling for China to follow international law and handle disputes peacefully.
"We will be continuing to work with our ASEAN partners on a potential statement that we might issue together," White House national security adviser Susan Rice told reporters on Monday.
"We obviously have issued such statements in the past with ASEAN, and in it we consistently underscore our shared commitment to a peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of commerce and navigation, the rule of law, and the necessity of disputes being resolved through peaceful, legal means."