Beijing has warned Washington not to become involved in its dispute with Vietnam over the South China Sea, casting a shadow over a new US-China strategic dialogue to be held on Saturday.
China is involved in a territorial dispute with Vietnam that is threatening to escalate into a wider regional conflict, and one that could see China jockeying with the US for influence in the region.
“If the United States does want to play a role, it may counsel restraint to those countries that have frequently been taking provocative action and ask them to be more responsible in their behaviour,” Cui Tiankai, a Chinese vice-foreign minister, told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday.
“I believe that individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope that fire will not be drawn to the United States.”
Last week Vietnam conducted a live-fire naval exercise in the sea, which China claims in its entirety. It has also accused Beijing of aggressive harassment of its oil-prospecting ships over the past month and has allowed anti-China demonstrations to take place.
China has also had territorial disputes with the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan over claims to the South China Sea.
The increasingly hostile dispute with Vietnam is set to dominate the inaugural US-China Asia-Pacific Consultations, a new forum to discuss regional issues, to be held in Hawaii on Saturday.
Mr Cui will represent China and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific region, the US. “The idea here is to make clear that the Asia-Pacific region is big enough for the both of us,” said a US government official.
“We have a lot of questions in areas where we want to seek great understanding and knowledge as China rises.”
The US also wants to discuss North Korea and Burma. Mr Campbell would press China to use its clout over North Korea to bring Pyongyang back to the six-party talks on its nuclear programme, making it clear that it was “inappropriate” for Pyongyang to “stalk away” from the talks, the official said.
US diplomats, together with military officials, will then turn their attention to the Pacific Islands, an area into which China is increasingly expanding. Mr Campbell will travel to eight Pacific Islands – including Samoa, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea – to meet Patrick Walsh, commander of the Pacific Fleet, and Nisha Biswal, assistant administrator of USAid.
They would be focusing on “enhancing the US role and commitment to the Pacific Island Forum”, the state department said. China has been steadily increasing its investments in the region. Chinese trade with Pacific Island countries reached a record $3.66bn last year, up 50 per cent on 2009.