China’s warning follows reports that Chinese vessels cut a Vietnamese ship’s seismic cables.
China on Thursday warned Vietnam to end exploration of oil and gas deposits in disputed areas of the South China Sea and to stop harassing its fishing boats, as tensions escalate between the two nations over the maritime row.
The caution from Beijing comes days after reports that Chinese vessels had cut the cables of a ship belonging to Vietnamese state-owned oil and gas company PetroVietnam while it was surveying waters in the area.
“Vietnam’s statement is inconsistent with the facts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the reported incident at a news briefing in Beijing.
PetroVietnam authorities said that the confrontation occurred Friday when its ship, the Banh Minh 02, was surveying an area off the coast of Vietnam’s Con Co Island where it encountered a large number of Chinese fishing boats which then sailed behind the ship, cutting its seismic cables.
Hong claimed Thursday that the Chinese fishing boats were in a disputed area of the sea off of China’s Hainan province. He said they had been “conducting regular fishing activities” and were “unreasonably” expelled from the area by Vietnamese military vessels.
His remarks followed a statement by Vietnamese foreign affairs spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi on Tuesday that China had “violated Vietnam’s sovereignty.”
According to a report by Agence France-Presse, Nghi also called for China to “immediately end this wrongdoing and not allow similar acts to reoccur.”
The incident is the second time that Chinese fishing vessels have reportedly damaged the ship’s cables, after a similar occurrence at the end of May 2011 that triggered street protests in the capital, Hanoi.
Vietnam has overlapping territorial claims with China in the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea, as do the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
But China insists it has sovereignty rights over virtually all of the waters within a “nine-dash line”—sometimes called the “Cow Tongue” line—which demarcates its territories in the South China Sea.
Hong said that Beijing and Hanoi were in negotiations over the area where the most recent incident took place, which he referred to as the “North Bay Estuary.”
“We hope relevant parties don’t take any unilateral action of the oil and gas extraction in relevant waters and stop interference of China’s normal fishing in order to create favorable conditions for the friendly negotiations between China and Vietnam,” Hong said.
China, which is also exploring for oil and gas in the South China Sea, routinely warns nations with similar interests in the area to back off.
India said earlier this week that it was prepared to send navy vessels to the area to protect its joint oil exploration interests with Vietnam, earning a rebuke from Beijing.
China also recently announced that beginning next year patrol vessels will “intercept and board” any foreign vessels in areas over which it claims sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The escalating tensions come as China has made moves to increase the might of its navy, launching its first aircraft carrier in September and recently testing its first two stealth jet fighters.
Beijing also recently issued new passports for its citizens that include an official Chinese map which incorporates all of the disputed territories in the South China Sea according to the “nine-dash line,” drawing criticism from neighboring countries.
China has refused efforts to resolve disputes internationally, preferring to deal individually with rival claimants.
Despite 10 years of diplomacy, China has refused to hold formal talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on devising a binding code of conduct aimed at reducing any chances of conflict in the sea, which experts say is Asia’s biggest potential military flashpoint.
China tells Vietnam to halt oil exploration in disputed waters
BEIJING, Dec 6 (Reuters) – China told Vietnam on Thursday to stop unilateral oil exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, raising tensions in a protracted maritime territorial dispute with its neighbour.
Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels from waters near China’s southern Hainan province, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
Hong’s description of the confrontation last Friday was in contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing ships.
“Vietnam’s statement is inconsistent with the facts,” Hong said.
China is in increasingly angry disputes with neighbours including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea. China, which lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes, also has a separate dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.
The Chinese fishing boats were in an area where Vietnam’s claim overlaps with waters of Hainan province, Hong said.
New Chinese regulations allow police to board vessels deemed to be intruding in waters off the island of Hainan, though details about how this could happen have not been made clear.
“The relevant fishing vessels were in these waters conducting regular fishing activities and they were unreasonably expelled by Vietnamese military vessels,” Hong said.
He added that China and Vietnam were currently in negotiations over the waters.
“We hope the Vietnam side will not engage in unilateral oil and gas exploration activities in the relevant waters, cease interfering with Chinese fishing vessels’ normal operations, and create a friendly atmosphere for bilateral negotiations”, Hong said.
China has made similar warnings in the past about not exploring for oil and gas in waters it considers its own.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was aware of the incident between the Chinese and Vietnamese vessels and said it had expressed concerns to Beijing over the new regulations.
“We call on the Chinese government to clarify the revised regulations and ensure their implementation is consistent with international law,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an emailed statement.
“All concerned parties should avoid any unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution of differences,” he said.
India, which jointly conducts some oil exploration with Vietnam, said this week that it was prepared to send navy ships into the region to safeguard its interests.
Energy-hungry China is also actively exploring the resources of the South China Sea. It aims to produce 15 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from the South China Sea by 2015, the energy administration said on Monday, raising the possibility of disputes escalating.
State-run CNOOC, China’s top offshore oil producer, in late June invited foreign companies to jointly develop nine blocks in the western part of the South China Sea, a move Vietnam said was illegal because the blocks overlap its territorial waters.
The South China Sea is one of Asia’s most sensitive military hotspots whose profile has been raised by a newly assertive China.
The mounting disputes come at a time when China is flexing increasing naval might, including the launch of its first aircraft carrier in September and the test flights of its first two models of a stealth jet fighter, one of which is believed to be designed to land on aircraft carriers.