China is “deeply shocked” by Vietnam’s “disruption” to its drilling in the South China Sea, during which Chinese ships were repeatedly rammed, a senior official said in Beijing yesterday.
China has maintained restraint in the face of provocations by Vietnam, whose ships deliberately collided with Chinese boats 171 times since May 3, Yi Xianliang, China’s deputy director general of boundary and ocean affairs, told a press briefing. Vietnam on May 7 said Chinese boats had rammed Vietnamese vessels, fired water cannon and used low-flying aircraft in a confrontation over China’s exploration rig close to the Paracel Islands that are claimed by both countries.
“We cannot tolerate any behavior that would undermine the safety of our personnel or our rig or drilling operation,” Yi said, confirming its vessels had used water cannons. “In the face of Vietnamese disruption, China had to increase its security forces at the scene.”
Tensions are escalating as Asian neighbors push back against Chinese moves to assert control over the resources of disputed maritime areas, seeking closer ties with the U.S. and seeking a code of conduct to avoid conflicts over seas that are rich in oil and gas. In a separate incident, Philippine police detained 11 fishermen this week near a disputed shoal close to the contested Spratly Islands.
Statements made by the U.S. emboldened certain parties to take provocative actions in the South China Sea, Yi said. President Barack Obama visited the Philippines and Japan last month in a tour aimed at reassuring Asian allies of U.S. support in the face of China’s rising military power.
The U.S. has criticized China for taking “provocative” and “unilateral” action to advance its territorial claims.
“The dangerous conduct and intimidation by the vessels is concerning,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in Washington yesterday. Asked which side was at fault, she said “the comments we’ve given make clear we think it’s the Chinese side that is exhibiting provocative actions here.”
Vietnamese stocks yesterday fell the most since 2001, with the VN Index plunging 5.9 percent to close at 527.09.
Yi said the drilling by China Oilfield Services Ltd. was legitimate and inside China’s sovereign territory. Vietnam has said the area where the rig is located is within its own waters. Yi wouldn’t give the number of Chinese vessels in the area. He said Chinese companies had been operating in the area for a decade and the recent drilling was a “routine continuation” of that.
Li Yong, chief executive officer of China Oilfield Services, said ramming a rig could have “disastrous consequences.” Li wouldn’t say how many people were on board the rig.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam’s Coast Guard, said on May 7 that China had sent 80 boats and that the situation was tense.
“The risk of escalation is real, given the role of oil and proximity to both countries,” said Taylor Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies China’s ties with its neighbors, referring to the incident between China and Vietnam.
President Xi Jinping is expanding China’s naval reach to back its claims to huge swaths of the South China Sea that is based on the “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947, that extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to the equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.
“I see this situation as an example of China’s repeated and one-sided provocations at sea,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said yesterday in Tokyo. “China should clearly explain the basis and details of its activities to Vietnam and to the international community.”
The confrontation off Vietnam’s coast is the most serious between the two countries since 2007 when Chinese naval patrol vessels fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat, killing one sailor. In 1988, a Chinese naval attack in the Spratlys, which Vietnam also lays claims to, killed 64 Vietnamese border guards as China seized seven atolls.
China and Vietnam both claim the Paracels, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have claims to other territory in the South China Sea. Asean is seeking a code of conduct for the oil- and gas-rich waters, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. The talks have made little progress since China agreed last July to start discussions.
Eleven Chinese fishermen detained by the Philippines this week were caught in Philippine territory and are under investigation for possible charges, police Director General Alan Purisima told reporters in Manila.
“We’re patrolling our areas to protect our maritime resources,” he said.
Philippine police didn’t fire at the Chinese vessel, which was caught with about 400 sea turtles 106 kilometers (66 miles) west of Rizal town in Palawan province, police maritime group head Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas said. China has demanded the release of the crew.
— With assistance by Henry Sanderson, and John Boudreau