China on Thursday warned Vietnam to end exploration of oil and gas deposits in disputed areas of the South China Sea and to stop harassing its fishing boats, as tensions escalate between the two nations over the maritime row.
The caution from Beijing comes days after reports that Chinese vessels had cut the cables of a ship belonging to Vietnamese state-owned oil and gas company PetroVietnam while it was surveying waters in the area.
"Vietnam's statement is inconsistent with the facts," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said of the reported incident at a news briefing in Beijing.
PetroVietnam authorities said that the confrontation occurred Friday when its ship, the Banh Minh 02, was surveying an area off the coast of Vietnam’s Con Co Island where it encountered a large number of Chinese fishing boats which then sailed behind the ship, cutting its seismic cables.
Hong claimed Thursday that the Chinese fishing boats were in a disputed area of the sea off of China’s Hainan province. He said they had been “conducting regular fishing activities” and were “unreasonably” expelled from the area by Vietnamese military vessels.
His remarks followed a statement by Vietnamese foreign affairs spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi on Tuesday that China had "violated Vietnam's sovereignty.”
According to a report by Agence France-Presse, Nghi also called for China to "immediately end this wrongdoing and not allow similar acts to reoccur.”
The incident is the second time that Chinese fishing vessels have reportedly damaged the ship’s cables, after a similar occurrence at the end of May 2011 that triggered street protests in the capital, Hanoi.
Vietnam has overlapping territorial claims with China in the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea, as do the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
But China insists it has sovereignty rights over virtually all of the waters within a “nine-dash line”—sometimes called the "Cow Tongue" line—which demarcates its territories in the South China Sea.
Hong said that Beijing and Hanoi were in negotiations over the area where the most recent incident took place, which he referred to as the “North Bay Estuary.”
“We hope relevant parties don’t take any unilateral action of the oil and gas extraction in relevant waters and stop interference of China’s normal fishing in order to create favorable conditions for the friendly negotiations between China and Vietnam,” Hong said.
China, which is also exploring for oil and gas in the South China Sea, routinely warns nations with similar interests in the area to back off.
India said earlier this week that it was prepared to send navy vessels to the area to protect its joint oil exploration interests with Vietnam, earning a rebuke from Beijing.
China also recently announced that beginning next year patrol vessels will "intercept and board" any foreign vessels in areas over which it claims sovereignty in the South China Sea.
The escalating tensions come as China has made moves to increase the might of its navy, launching its first aircraft carrier in September and recently testing its first two stealth jet fighters.
Beijing also recently issued new passports for its citizens that include an official Chinese map which incorporates all of the disputed territories in the South China Sea according to the “nine-dash line,” drawing criticism from neighboring countries.
China has refused efforts to resolve disputes internationally, preferring to deal individually with rival claimants.
Despite 10 years of diplomacy, China has refused to hold formal talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on devising a binding code of conduct aimed at reducing any chances of conflict in the sea, which experts say is Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.