China taking 'more aggressive' stance at sea: US admiral

NEW DELHI, July 23, 2010 (AFP) - US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen said on Friday that China had adopted an increasingly aggressive stance on the high seas, with Beijing pushing territorial claims.

Mullen also repeated criticism of Beijing for breaking off military contacts with the United States earlier this year, and for a lack of "transparency" in its military build-up.

During a visit to New Delhi, Mullen said Indian officials shared US concerns about China's approach and agreed on the need to ensure open access to vital sea lanes across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

"China seems to be asserting itself more and more with respect to the kinds of territorial claims in islands like the Spratlys," said Mullen, the US military's top officer, referring to the island chain in the South China Sea.

"They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach" in waters Beijing deems of economic and strategic interest, he told reporters.

The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said he has also moved from "being curious about where China is headed (militarily) to being concerned about it".

US officials worry that China's more assertive stance in the Pacific Ocean and its anti-ship missile arsenal, capable of striking aircraft carriers, could undercut America's long-dominant naval power in Asia.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile said at security talks in Hanoi on Friday that resolving disputes over the South China Sea was "pivotal" to regional stability.

Beijing's claims over potentially resource-rich archipelagos in the South China Sea conflict with those of some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

ASEAN favours a united front on the South China Sea issue but Beijing prefers to deal with individual claimants, and was not happy that Clinton and 11 other delegates raised the matter in Friday's talks, diplomats said.