China’s military chief will tour American warships today in a four-day US visit that comes amid heightened tensions between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbours over territorial disputes.

An escalating maritime feud between China and Vietnam is expected to come up when General Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army general staff, holds talks this week with his counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, US officials said.

Tensions between China and Vietnam spiked after Beijing said it would relocate a deep-water oil rig to a disputed area of the South China Sea, with Hanoi saying Chinese vessels rammed its patrol ships and turned water cannon on them.

China has rejected criticism from Washington over its dispute with Vietnam as “irresponsible” while a US diplomat has voiced concern about “dangerous conduct at sea”.

China’s clash with Vietnam is the latest in a series of disagreements between Beijing and its Asian neighbours over territory in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.

The United States, anxious about Beijing’s growing military might in the strategic area, has suggested China engaged in intimidation of its neighbours and America has bolstered its defence ties in the region.

The Pentagon said the visit by the Chinese general was designed to deepen relations between the two countries’ militaries, as it comes after a similar visit to China last year by Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“General Dempsey looks forward to the opportunity to meet again with General Fang and to continue their conversation on improving our mil-to-mil relationship,” press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Friday.

Fang’s trip begins in San Diego, where he will visit an aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, a new littoral combat ship, the USS Coronado, and a Marine Corps recruitment depot.

The Chinese are keenly interested in aircraft carriers and naval aviation after recently launching their first carrier, the Liaoning. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel got a tour of the ship during a trip to China in April.

On Thursday, the US military will roll out the red carpet for Fang with a full honours ceremony at the Pentagon, where he will hold talks with Dempsey and then take part in a joint press conference.

The Chinese officer is also due to travel to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, before wrapping up his trip in New York.

The Philippines, a key US ally in the region, has charged nine Chinese fishermen for allegedly poaching protected species in disputed waters. Beijing demanded their release and the incident is likely to further stoke tensions between the two countries.

The fishermen are expected to be summoned by the court and should enter a plea within 10 days, with bail set at 70,000 pesos (HK$12,400) each. Poachers of “rare, threatened or endangered” species can be face up to 20 years in prison under Philippine law and fines of up to US$200,000.

On Sunday, Vietnamese media said a Vietnamese patrol boat and several Chinese vessels blasted each other with water cannon near a Chinese oil rig set up on May 1 in the disputed Paracel Islands, which China calls the Xisha Islands, and Vietnam calls the Hoang Sa Islands.

This was reportedly the first time Vietnamese vessels had responded to “aggressive Chinese actions”. Both sides accuse the other of ramming ships. Vietnam has presented a video showing Chinese ships hitting its vessels.

Vietnam has demanded that China pull back the rig. China has refused, saying the waters are its “inherent territory”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and other nations are deeply concerned about “aggressive” Chinese action in the South China Sea.

“We want to see a code of conduct created; we want to see this resolved peacefully through the Law of the Sea, through arbitration, through any other means, but not direct confrontation and aggressive action,” Kerry said before a meeting at the State Department with Singapore foreign minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.

The stand-off close to the disputed Paracel Islands, which China seized from US-backed South Vietnam in 1974, has led to fears of a fully blown naval confrontation between the two nations, which have fought one land and two sea battles over the last 40 years.

Shanmugam echoed Kerry’s desire for Southeast Asian nations and China to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea – an effort to help manage territorial disputes that involve China and five other claimants.

“We need a situation where parties resolve their disputes and their differences in a way that’s acceptable to all,” he said. 

The US says it takes no stance on the sovereignty disputes, but has an interest in open commerce and navigation in the South China Sea, which is criss-crossed by busy shipping lanes !