Washington: Senator John McCain called for the United States to step up military and political support to Southeast Asian nations to stand up against China in growing disputes in the South China Sea.
McCain, a senior member of the Republican Party, said the United States should help members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to develop and deploy an early warning system and coastal vessels in contested waters.
The former navy captain said the United States should also turn to diplomacy to help ASEAN nations sort out their own disputes and "establish a more unified front," hailing a recent agreement between Malaysia and Brunei as an example.
"China seeks to exploit the divisions among ASEAN members to play them off each other to press its own agenda," McCain told a dinner at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank.
McCain, a champion of an assertive military policy, welcomed President Barack Obama`s administration`s defence of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but said it should go further.
He said the United States should let "other countries know, where possible, which claims the United States accepts, which ones we do not, and what actions we are prepared to support" -- especially in defense of the Philippines, a treaty ally.
Tensions have been rising in the potentially resource-rich South China Sea and East China Sea, where Beijing has myriad territorial disputes.
In recent weeks, Vietnam has carried out live-fire naval drills and the Philippines announced plans to send its naval flagship in contested waters after incidents at sea.
McCain said he welcomed a cooperative relationship with China and did not seek conflict, but laid the blame squarely at China`s "aggressive behaviour" and "unsubstantiated territorial claims" for recent tensions.
China said last week that it would not resort to the use of force in the South China Sea and urged other countries to "do more for peace and stability in the region."