BEIJING – China urged the United States on Wednesday to restrain other countries from provoking Beijing in disputes over contested territories in the South China Sea, warning that Washington risks becoming embroiled in an unwanted conflict.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said it would be best if the United States stayed out of the long-standing disputes, but acknowledged that Washington has an interest in freedom of navigation in sea lanes that are vital to trade.
"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 behavior," Cui said at a briefing. "I believe that individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope that fire will not be drawn to the United States."
Decades of recurring tensions over rival claims to islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea have flared in recent weeks. Vietnam and the Philippines have cited Chinese incursions and provocations in the areas they claim and Beijing has responded by accusing the others of provocative acts.
Cui accused unspecified "other countries" of occupying territory, drilling for oil and gas and endangering fishermen in the South China Sea. But he later suggested he was referring to one country in particular and then said China wanted to avoid conflict with Vietnam.
"China has no intention to get into military conflict with any country, Vietnam included," he said.
With centuries of enmity with China, Vietnam has encouraged the United States to take a more active role in the dispute. Washington has carefully tried not to pick sides in the territorial claims, which also involve Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. But over the past year, shared concerns about a more assertive, powerful Beijing have lent new momentum to Washington's ties with Vietnam.
Cui tread a careful line in his remarks, laying down markers Beijing does not want Washington to cross but recognizing U.S. interests in the region. He spoke ahead of consultations with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell on Saturday in Hawaii on issues in the Asia-Pacific region.