A day after Vietnamese and Chinese vessels were reported sparring near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea, Beijing said Vietnam continues to send ships to the area, threatening Chinese personnel.
Vietnam’s government made no official statements about the standoff near the Chinese oil rig Thursday, but the country’s state-controlled media provided extensive coverage.
“Vietnam will hit back if Chinese vessels continue ramming Vietnamese ships,” the front page of one of the most popular newspapers Tuoi Tre
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Many newspapers highlighted coverage of the spat in international media, laying emphasis on perceived Chinese aggression and Vietnam’s sovereignty claims over the islands.
In Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping tried to play down the incident, insisting it was not a “clash” and the countries should be able to resolve it through negotiations.
Cheng said the two sides are friendly neighbors and friendly cooperation is in the fundamental interests of both countries.
'Shocked' by Vietnam
But Yi Xianliang, deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, later told reporters in a special briefing in Beijing that authorities were “shocked” by the Vietnamese behavior and Chinese vessels are taking measures to protect themselves.
Yi said Vietnam has been sending additional vessels to the scene and it has constituted a threat to Chinese personnel. He said Beijing needs to have a certain level of force to guarantee the smooth operation of the Chinese oil rig.
China announced just last week that it had placed the state-run oil rig near the Paracel Islands, 220 kilometers from Vietnam's shores, an area Hanoi claims as its exclusive economic zone. China asserted the operation is clearly within its territorial waters.
The $1 billion rig is owned by China's state-run CNOOC oil company.
In Washington Wednesday, the State Department said China’s decision to send the oil rig into the disputed waters “is provocative and raises tensions.”
During a visit to Hanoi Thursday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel urged both sides to "refrain from unilateral actions,” adding the global economy is "too fragile to brook the possibility of a crisis that could escalate into conflict."
"Every country has the right to advocate for its position and for its claims to territorial sovereignty. However, the consistent position of the U.S. is that advocacy must be diplomatic and the means for advancing one's claims must be consistent with international law, including the U.N. convention on the law of the sea," Russel said.
Onus is on China
He said the onus is on China to define its claims in a manner that’s consistent with the convention. He said the Vietnamese officials with whom he discussed the issue accepted that the U.S. does not take a position on the relative merits of the sovereignty claims.
“There was no suggestion in any of my meetings on either side on a role for the U.S. military. Had there been one, I would have emphasized the points made by the State Department spokesperson that these issues must be addressed peacefully and in accordance with international law,” Russel said.
In addition to Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also have territorial disputes with Beijing in the oil-rich and strategic South China Sea. The rival claimants accuse China of using increasingly aggressive tactics to defend its territory.