US President Donald Trump offered Sunday to mediate in a territorial dispute over the resource-rich South China Sea, after years of Chinese island-building in the contested waters.
Trump’s surprise proposal to insert himself into the decades-long row risked a backlash from China, which has repeatedly said the United States has no role to play in what it insists is a series of bilateral issues.
“If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know… I am a very good mediator,” Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi during an official state visit.
Hours later, the Communist leaders of China and Vietnam said they had reached a “consensus” on handling the disputed waters during a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hanoi, according to the official Chinese news agency Xinhua.
The countries “reached an important consensus in accordance with leaders of the two parties and countries, to appropriately manage maritime issues, steadily advance all forms of maritime cooperation, including joint development and jointly strive to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Xinhua reported.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually. It is also believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, and the dispute has long been seen as a potential trigger for conflict in Asia.
Vietnam has courted support from Washington in the row, as it and other claimants have been powerless to stop China’s efforts in recent years to cement its claims by building artificial islands in disputed areas.
Those islands are capable of serving as military bases, and some of the rival claimants are concerned that China will soon establish de facto control of the waters.
Tensions spiked this year when Vietnam suspended an oil exploration project in an area of the sea also claimed by Beijing, reportedly over pressure from its powerhouse communist neighbour.
In 2014, China moved an oil rig into waters off Vietnam’s coast, sparking violent protests in several Vietnamese cities.
Trump’s offer came just before he flew to the Philippine capital of Manila for another regional summit.
– Thanks, but… –
However, his proposal was not immediately accepted by the Philippines, which under President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to defuse tensions with China over the row in favour of closer economic ties.