Vietnam Says Prepared to Act on China Rig in Disputed Waters

Vietnam said it is prepared to take measures over China’s placement of an exploration rig in disputed waters, as the U.S. called the Chinese move “provocative and unhelpful” given recent regional tensions.

Vietnam can’t accept this month’s placement of the HD-981 rig and deployment of vessels in an area it considers part of the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh told Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi yesterday by phone, according to a posting on the website of Vietnam’s foreign ministry. Vietnam demanded that China withdraw the rig and vessels and hold talks to resolve the issue, Minh said.

“Vietnam will take all suitable and necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” Minh said, according to the posting.

The rig’s location is near the Paracel Islands, which are now under Chinese control, said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Vietnam also claims the Paracels, and both countries, as well as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, have claims to other territory in the South China Sea.

“The two countries are likely to engage in a war of words for some time,” Li said by e-mail. “Vietnam will openly criticize China in the international arena and mobilize other Asean countries, especially those claimant countries, to put pressure on China,” he said, in a reference to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Press Conference

State-owned Vietnam Oil & Gas Group, known as PetroVietnam, said in a statement on its website it sent a letter to China National Offshore Oil Corp. asking the company to stop activities and remove the rig.

Yang told Minh during their phone call that no country has the right to interfere with the operations of Chinese companies in the waters, according to a statement posted yesterday on the website of China’s Foreign Ministry.

“The Paracel Islands are China’s inherent territories” and therefore there is no dispute over them, Yang said, according to the statement. “China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposes Vietnam’s interference.”

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry scheduled a press conference in Hanoi at 4 p.m. local time on “the operation of China’s drilling rig HD-981 in infringement of Vietnam’s sovereignty,” according to the ministry.

China’s move may have been aimed at forcing Vietnam to agree to joint development of energy resources in the area south of the Gulf of Tonkin, which the two countries have previously discussed, Li said.

U.S. Response

The rig was placed in an area that Vietnam refers to as exploration block 143, according to the Foreign Ministry statement. Exxon Mobil Corp. has been exploring in waters to the west of the Chinese rig, closer to the Vietnamese coast, and has made one of Vietnam’s biggest discoveries of natural gas, according to PetroVietnam.

The U.S. government is “looking carefully” into the rig deployment, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing in Washington.

“Given the recent history of tensions in the South China Sea, China’s decision to operate its oil rig in disputed waters is provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region,” Psaki said. “These events point to the need for claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law and reach agreement about what types of activities should be permissible within disputed areas.”

All countries asserting ownership of parts of the South China Sea should exercise care and restraint, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel.

“No country should seek to use coercion or the threat of force to advance or to assert its claim,” he said yesterday at a briefing in Hong Kong. “The global economy is too fragile and regional stability is too important to be put at risk over short-term economic advantage.”

— With assistance by Jason Folkmanis

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