China in war of words with Vietnam

Shot across the bows: a Chinese naval warship

The Chinese government has demanded that Vietnam immediately halt its unilateral oil exploration in the South China Sea in the latest move by Beijing to defend its sovereignty claim over the prospective disputed waters, according to a report.

The long-standing territorial dispute over the area has escalated over the past week after state oil company PetroVietnam reported that one of its exploration vessels, Binh Minh 02, had its seismic cable severed by a Chinese fishing boat near the Gulf of Tonkin last Friday.

Vietnam, which summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest the cable cutting on Monday, this week also issued a decree in retaliation stating that it would launch new patrols next month backed by marine police to stop Chinese fishing boats encroaching on its waters in the South China Sea.

It followed a statement by Indian Navy Chief Admiral DK Joshi that the country would consider sending warships to protect its interests in the area, where state-run ONGC Videsh is involved in three oil exploration blocks under a joint venture with Petro Vietnam.

Beijing’s Foreign Ministry reiterated on Tuesday that China opposed oil and gas development by other countries in the South China Sea - including the Spratly Islands - that is contested by neighbours Vietnam and the Philippines, while Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also lay claims to parts of it.

China maintains that it has “undisputed” sovereignty over the South China Sea, believed to harbour rich hydrocarbon deposits, and has exclusive rights to develop the area’s energy resources.

''We hope that concerned countries respect China's position and rights,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

The ministry issued a further warning on Thursday ordering Vietnam to stop unilateral exploration, according to Reuters.

Hong said Vietnam had “unreasonably” expelled Chinese fishing boats from waters near China's southern Hainan province.

He also disputed Vietnam’s account of last Friday’s incident, saying it was “inconsistent with the facts”.

Chinese fishing boats were in an area where Vietnam's claim overlaps with waters of Hainan province, the spokesman added.

The province had said last week that Chinese vessels would board and search ships in contested areas of the waterway, which includes vital shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade moves.

Some energy experts in China see the South China Sea as an important new energy frontier close to home that could make the country less dependent on its huge oil imports from the Middle East.

On Monday, China's National Energy Administration named the South China Sea as the main offshore site for natural gas production.

Within two years, China aims to produce 150 billion cubic metres of natural gas from fields in the sea, a significant increase from the 20 Bcm produced so far, the agency said.

Earlier this year, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation started drilling in deep water in non-disputed waters off the southern coast of China.

The escalation in the South China Sea dispute comes less than a month after Xi Jinping took office as the new Chinese leader.

Xi appears to have taken a particular interest in the South China Sea and the serious dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan. Whether any of China's most recent actions in the South China Sea were associated with Xi was not clear.

A senior official of PetroVietnam, Pham Viet Dung, was quoted in the Vietnamese news media as saying that large numbers of Chinese fishing boats, many of them substantial vessels, had recently entered waters claimed by Vietnam. The fishing vessels interfered with the operations of the oil company, he said.

In May 2011, the Vietnamese authorities said the Binh Minh 02 vessel also had its seismic cable cut by three Chinese surveillance ships, resulting in weeks of anti-China protests in Hanoi.

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