BEIJING — China warned President Obama on Tuesday not to spark a fire in Asia after he announced the lifting of a long-standing embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam.
Obama unveiled the historic step on Monday during his first visit to Vietnam, insisting the move was “not based on China” while simultaneously acknowledging that Washington and Hanoi share a common concern about China’s actions in the South China Sea.
Beijing, not surprisingly, was unimpressed. It has a complex relationship with its southern neighbor: The two governments are united in their communist ideology and distaste for Western democracy but are historical adversaries and fought their latest border war in 1979. They now fiercely contest sovereignty over many small islands in the South China Sea.
The United States and Vietnam must not spark a “regional tinderbox,” the Communist Party newspaper, China Daily, warned in an editorial Tuesday, noting concerns that Obama’s move was meant to “curb the rise of China.”
“This, if true, bodes ill for regional peace and stability,” it argued.
The United States accuses China of militarizing the South China Sea by turning contested reefs and rocks into putative military bases.
Beijing says it is only asserting its “indisputable” sovereignty over the islands and charges that the United States is interfering by encouraging rival claimants to antagonize China.
The nationalist Global Times tabloid called Obama’s claim that the Vietnam move was not aimed at China “a very poor lie,” adding that it would exacerbate the “strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing.”
While not an official mouthpiece, the Global Times nevertheless often represents a strain of nationalist thinking within the ruling Communist Party.
It accused Washington of trying to knit three nets around China — in ideology, in security and in economy and trade — in an attempt to secure its dominance of the region.
While it is unlikely that Vietnam, whose weapons systems are largely Russian-made, would import significant quantities of U.S. arms for the moment, the paper said, lifting the embargo draws Hanoi into a “U.S.-dominated regional security system.”
The paper also implied that there was some hypocrisy in the move to cozy up to Communist Vietnam. “When the U.S. has an urgent need to contain China in the South China Sea, the standards of its so-called human rights can be relaxed,” it wrote.
Speaking in Ho Chi Minh City after Obama arrived there Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the relaxation of the arms embargo was not about China but about promoting a “rules-based order” in the fastest-growing marketplace in the world.
“If you want to point to the possibility of tinderbox and possibly igniting something, I would caution China, as President Obama and others have, to not unilaterally move to reclamation activities and the militarization of the islands and areas that are part of the claims being contested today,” Kerry told reporters in the former South Vietnamese capital.
“We don’t take a position on those claims. China should note that. We are not saying China is wrong in the claims. We are simply saying, ‘Resolve it peacefully; resolve it in the rules-based order.’ ”
Relaxing an “out of the ordinary” arms embargo was neither out of order nor inflammatory, Kerry insisted. “I hope China will read this correctly.”
Experts in China said they expected that U.S. warships would sooner or later be granted access to Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water port that served as the key U.S. naval base during the Vietnam War.
Shi Yinhong, a professor in international relations at Renmin University of China, said Beijing would not respond in a tit-for-tat way but would continue to build its military power in the South China Sea, while exerting pressure on Hanoi not to draw too close to Washington.
“China will try to cozy up to Vietnam but at the same time put pressure on it,” he said.
On social media, there were some angry reactions. “It looks like Vietnam is going to be America’s new puppet,” one user wrote. “Vietnam needs to give serious consideration to inviting the wolf into the house.”
“The U.S. is walking an arms race path,” wrote another, arguing this was good news as Beijing had deeper pockets. “China can wait until the enemy is exhausted.”
David Nakamura in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.