Opening a new source of potential friction with China, the United States said that it was ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbours over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking in Vietnam at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation, or Asean, said, "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea."
The United States, she said, was prepared to facilitate multilateral negotiations to settle competing claims over the islands — among them the Spratly and Paracel islands — something sought by Vietnam, which has had deadly clashes with China over them.
China has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits. And it has put American officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a "core interest” of sovereignty.