YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan -- China is intentionally disregarding diplomacy in favor of force while staking its claim to territory in the Asia-Pacific, the State Department's top official for the region told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel's comments came as Vietnamese officials and news outlets issued fresh images purportedly showing Chinese ships ramming Vietnamese vessels within the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
"China -- as a strong and rising power -- should hold itself to a high standard of behavior," Russel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 25. "To willfully disregard diplomatic and other peaceful ways of dealing with disagreements and disputes in favor of economic or physical coercion is destabilizing and dangerous."
Nations with competing claims to islands in the South and East China seas, including the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam and others, are "understandably alarmed by China's increasingly assertive efforts" to back their claims, Russel said.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea's islands and reefs, mostly through what it deems as historical discovery. Other nations in the region base their claims primarily on their interpretations of international law.
Whoever controls the area also gains rights to vast fisheries and energy resources in the surrounding waters.
This week, Vietnam's Coast Guard website released images purportedly showing multiple Chinese ships crippling a Vietnamese fishery vessel on June 23.
While one Chinese ship rams Vietnamese vessel KN-951, another ship fires a water cannon. Water cannons can be used to cripple communications towers aboard the Vietnamese ships.
Vietnam news outlets say that 29 official Vietnamese ships and seven private fishing boats have been damaged since the low-level conflict began in May, when China moved a $1 billion offshore oil rig into waters near the disputed Paracel Islands.
Despite diplomatic talks, dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese ships continue to confront each other in the area. Still, neither side has opened fire on the other.
Although each side has accused the other of being the aggressor in the ship-ramming incidents, most of China's coast guard ships are considerably larger than the Vietnamese vessels involved in the incidents.