BEIJING/HANOI: China accused Vietnam yesterday of intentionally colliding with its ships in the South China Sea, but called for talks to end a bitter row sparked by Beijing’s parking of a giant oil rig in contested waters.
A senior foreign ministry official in Beijing demanded that Vietnam withdraw its ships after its southern neighbour asserted that Chinese vessels used water cannon and rammed eight of its vessels at the weekend near the rig. Hanoi said two vessels were badly damaged and six people were wounded in the worst setback to ties between the two Communist nations in years.
China said the drilling operations were being carried out in its territory and it had acted with the “utmost restraint” in using water cannons in response to rammings it blamed on Vietnam.
Yi Xianliang, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, said China had only sent civilian vessels to the area while Hanoi sent several armed ships.
“Our aim, our only aim, is to guarantee our reasonable, legal, normal drilling operations,” Yi said, adding China had no choice but to increase its security measures in response to what he said was Vietnam’s provocations.
“The operations by China in the waters off Triton Island in the Paracel Islands are China’s sovereign right and have nothing to do with Vietnam,” he told reporters at a hastily-arranged press briefing, referring to the part of the South China Sea where the rig has been operating.
China has parked about 80 ships around the rig, Vietnamese officials have said, adding that seven of them were military.
Its foreign ministry has shown reporters what it said were video clips of Chinese ships hitting Vietnamese Seaguard vessels.
“We don’t care about what China said,” Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commandant of Vietnam’s coast guard, said yesterday.
“We have been only doing our job which is protecting our territory and sovereignty. We only sent ships following the laws but China has missile ships supporting its civilian ships.”
Yi’s comments were a departure from earlier remarks by Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping, who said he believed there had been no “clash” at sea, although he said he did not have detailed knowledge of what had happened.
China was willing to try and resolve the issue with Vietnam via talks, but Hanoi had to withdraw its ships, Yi added. “We can appropriately resolve this issue. We have the ability, the confidence and the wisdom to do so,” he said.
The two Communist nations have sought to put aside border disputes and memories of a brief border war in 1979. Vietnam is usually careful about comments against China, for which it relies on for political support and bilateral trade that surpassed $50bn in 2013.
Still, Hanoi has strongly condemned the operation of the drilling rig, the first such action by Beijing in contested waters, and told the owners, China’s state-run oil company CNOOC, to remove it.
Hanoi has also hinted at international legal action and said it had requested dialogue with China’s leadership, but was awaiting a response.
The row with its neighbour sent Vietnam’s stocks markets plummeting yesterday. The benchmark VN Index in Ho Chi Minh City closed down 5.9 percent, its biggest one-day fall in nearly 13 years, while the smaller Hanoi bourse dropped 6.4 percent, its biggest slump since May 2010.
The row comes days after US President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies including Japan and the Philippines, both locked in territorial disputes with China.
Obama, promoting a strategic “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific, also visited South Korea and Malaysia, but not China.
Meanwhile, Japan and the US said yesterday they were deeply concerned by the latest flare-up between China and Vietnam over contested waters, with Tokyo urging Beijing to rein in its “provocative” actions.
The comments came after Hanoi said Chinese vessels rammed its patrol ships and turned water cannon on them near a controversial drilling rig in a disputed patch of the South China Sea.
At the same time, Japan and China continue to face off in their own territorial row over a small island grouping in the East China Sea and amid claims that Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive.
“We have strong concerns as there is information that many Vietnamese vessels were damaged and some people were injured,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo. “We are deeply worried as regional tensions have risen with China unilaterally starting rigging activities in disputed waters” in the South China Sea, the top government spokesman said.
“We recognise this incident is part of China’s unilateral and provocative maritime activities,” he said.
Suga said China should explain to Vietnam and the international community the basis on which it was acting and added Japan strongly wants China to refrain from provocative moves and “act in a self-restrained manner”.
Hanoi said Wednesday that Chinese ships protecting a deep-water drilling rig in disputed waters had used water cannon to attack Vietnamese patrol vessels and had repeatedly rammed them, injuring six people.
Tensions between the communist neighbours have risen sharply since Beijing unilaterally announced last week it would relocate the rig.