Vietnam hosts U.S. Navy as Chinese threat looms

Vietnamese fishermen sit waiting to leave for a night fishing trip from a beach in the central city of Danang on April 22, 2012. Getty Images

(AP) HANOI, Vietnam - Vietnam kicked off a weeklong naval exchange Monday with the U.S. Navy amid percolating tensions in the South China Sea with China.

Three ships from the U.S. 7th Fleet visited Danang during the five-day event that began Monday. No live-fire drills were planned, but the two sides were expected to practice salvage and disaster training as they have done in recent years.

Vietnam, China, the Philippines and other nations have competing claims to islands in the South China Sea, which is believed rich in oil and gas deposits. Many view the sea as a potential flash point of armed conflict.

Tensions have flared this month near a shoal north of the disputed Spratly Islands where two Chinese maritime surveillance ships blocked a Philippine warship from arresting Chinese fishermen on April 10. Chinese and Philippine vessels continued to face off at the shoal on Monday, each waiting for the other to pull out.

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Earlier this month, five Vietnamese Buddhist monks traveled to the Spratlys to teach Buddhism and defend their nation's territorial claim.

Tensions between Vietnam and China hit a low point last summer after Hanoi accused Beijing of interfering with its maritime oil exploration activities. Beijing denied the charge.

The last major clash in the sea involved China and Vietnam and left more than 70 Vietnamese sailors dead in 1988.

Beijing has named the South China Sea one of its "core interests," meaning it could potentially go to war to protect it. The U.S. has said it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the sea, and analysts say Washington is expanding its military presence in Asia to counter China's rising influence.

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