Saturday, May 10, 2014

China asserts right to drill in disputed sea as stand-off mounts


May 9

BEIJING — China insisted yesterday it had every right to drill for oil off Vietnam’s coast and warned its neighbour to immediately leave the area around the deep-sea rig where Chinese and Vietnamese ships are engaged in a tense stand-off.

With the ships jostling each other since China deployed the rig last weekend in disputed South China Sea waters, the United States warned both sides to de-escalate tensions and urged China to clarify its claims to the territory.

The stalemate underlines the apparently intractable nature of many of China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours. The ship stand-off — with both sides accusing the other of ramming ships — has raised the possibility of a conflict in the South China Sea’s most serious incident in years.

Vietnam’s main stock market index recorded its biggest one-day drop since 2001 on fears of a protracted stalemate or possible conflict between the neighbouring nations, which have fought two naval skirmishes in the waters since 1974 and have a history of conflict going back 1,000 years.

The stand-off started on May 1, when China moved a deep-sea oil rig into waters close to the Paracel Islands in what most analysts believe was an especially assertive move to help cement its claims of sovereignty over the area. Vietnam, which says the islands belong to it, immediately despatched ships.

On Wednesday, Vietnam said Chinese vessels had repeatedly rammed and fired water cannons at its ships, damaging several of them, and showed footage of the incidents. China insisted it had not done any wrong and said it had maintained a lot of restraint in the face of intensive provocations by Vietnam that were endangering its personnel and property. It has said it will continue with its drilling activities while the area is typhoon-free in May, June and July.

“It’s the Vietnamese vessels that are provoking this issue. It’s the Vietnamese vessels that are ramming into Chinese vessels,” said Mr Yi Xianliang, deputy director-general of the department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of China’s Foreign Ministry.

Mr Yi said China’s operations in the waters were completely legal, legitimate and justified because the waters were China’s inherent territory.

His comments were a departure from earlier remarks by Vice-Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping, who said he believed there had been no “clash” at sea, though he did not have detailed knowledge of what had happened.

Mr Yi said Vietnam had, within five days, despatched 35 vessels that rammed into Chinese ships 171 times. He said the Vietnamese ships included armed vessels, but on the Chinese side there were only civilian or non-armed government vessels.

Mr Yi added that China stood ready to discuss the issue with Vietnam, but the precondition is that Vietnam must put an end to the disruption of Chinese operations and must remove its vessels and personnel at the scene.
“We can appropriately resolve this issue. We have the ability, confidence and wisdom to do so,” he added.

Mr Ngo Ngoc Thu, deputy commander of Vietnam Coast Guard, said the situation remained tense, but there had been no contact yesterday.

“The two sides are still shadowboxing with each other,’’ he said. “We don’t care about what China said. 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.”

Vietnam is usually careful about comments against China, for which it relies on for political support and bilateral trade that surpassed US$50 billion (S$62.3 billion) last year. 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.

China has been increasingly pressing its claims in the South China Sea, which it claims almost in its entirety. This is bringing it into conflict with Vietnam and the Philippines, which also claim parts of the water, as do Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The United States’ position is that it does not take sides in the dispute, but shares regional concerns about China’s growing clout. It has criticised Beijing’s latest move as “provocative”.

Mr Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, urged both sides to use restraint and avoid taking unilateral actions, and urged China to detail its legal claims to the waters. He met senior Vietnamese leaders yesterday and said the row had been discussed at length.


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