Hanoi (Vietnam): Opening a new source of potential friction with China, the United States said on Friday that it was ready to step into a tangled dispute between China and its smaller Asian neighbors over a string of strategically sensitive islands in the South China Sea. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton, speaking in Vietnam at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation, or Asean, said, â€œThe United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asiaâ€™s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.â€ The US, she said, was prepared to facilitate multilateral negotiations to settle competing claims over the islands â€” among them Spratly and Paracel islands â€” something sought by Vietnam, which has had deadly clashes with China over them. In 1988 warships from China and Vietnam traded fire in the Spratly Islands, sinking several Vietnamese boats and killing dozens of sailors. http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Defa...eLabel=23&EntityId=Ar02303&ViewMode=HTML&GZ=T Chinaâ€™s maritime ambitions have expanded along with its military and economic muscle. It has long laid claim to islands in the South China Sea because they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits. And it has put US officials on notice that it will not brook foreign interference in the waters off its southeastern coast, which it views as a â€œcore interestâ€ of sovereignty. For decades, China has sparred with Southeast Asian nations over control of 200 tiny islands, rocks and spits of sand that dot these waters.