US diplomat visits Hoang Sa Islands administration office

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US General Consul Le Thanh An (2nd, L) at the office of the Hoang Sa District People's Committee in Da Nang

The US Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City has visited the office of the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Archipelago administration and held discussions with local government officials.

Analysts said the move could irk China as both Washington and Beijing compete for "the strategic heart and mind of Southeast Asia."

Consul General Le Thanh An led Tuesday a delegation of the US consulate to meet with officials of the Hoang Sa island district administration based in the central city of Da Nang, according to a statement posted on the website of the Hoang Sa People's Committee.

Dang Cong Ngu, Chairman of Hoang Sa District, briefed the US delegation on his office's operation and development plans, the statement said.

Vietnam appointed Ngu as Hoang Sa mayor in 2009 in a largely symbolic move to assert sovereignty over the archipelago, which has been occupied by China since 1974.

Le Thanh An said at the meeting that the US supported peaceful solutions for disputes in the East Sea, internationally known as South China Sea, and wanted the safety and freedom of sea navigation maintained on the basis of international laws, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Both China and Vietnam are signatories to the UNCLOS but the US has not ratified it.

The visit took place two days after US Navy destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and the salvage ship USNS Salvor docked in Da Nang's Tien Sa Port.

The deployment of the guided-missile carrier comes at a time when China has publicly flexed its naval muscles in waters off the Vietnamese coast.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea.

China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 1.7 million square kilometers, a move emphatically rejected by independent experts.

Analysts consider the US envoy's visit a "diplomatic provocation" that risks triggering strong reactions from China.

"China will see it as a provocation I'd guess," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute.

Valencia said he was expecting China to complain about the US "meddling".

Since US President Barrack Obama announced a policy "pivot" towards the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region in late 2011, the US has consistently maintained that it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute.

The pivot has served to increase tensions between  Washington and Beijing, analysts say, with China viewing it as a move to contain its growing military and economic clout.

Also in Da Nang, the US announced on April 24 that funding for a project to clean up dioxin, the toxic chemical left behind by Agent Orange at a former American airbase, would double to US$84 million.

Several experts have said US engagement in Da Nang must be considered from a global geopolitical point of view: Da Nang is a strategic deep water harbor in the East Sea, where China is rapidly expanding its military, economic and civilian presence.

"There is a geopolitical significance to these activities and their location in central Vietnam," said Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

"China and the US may compete for the hearts and minds of Vietnam but Vietnam will pursue a policy of independence and self-reliance."

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