China tossed blame back at Vietnam on Thursday over the collision of their ships around a giant oil rig deployed by Beijing in contested waters in the South China Sea as activists in Vietnam called for protests against the northern neighbor amid spiraling tensions.
Countering Hanoi’s accusations that Chinese vessels had intentionally rammed Vietnamese coast guard ships patrolling the area near the rig, China’s foreign ministry said it was Vietnamese ships that had slammed Chinese ones and blamed Hanoi for the “provocations.”
At the same time China also opened the door for talks on the issue, as Japan and the United States expressed deep concern about rising tensions in the disputed waters and Vietnamese activists demanded a strong response from Hanoi.
"The Chinese side made no provocations at all. It is the Vietnamese side that is making provocations," Yi Xiangling, deputy director-general of the Chinese foreign ministry's Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, said at a press briefing in Beijing.
He said Vietnamese ships had rammed Chinese vessels 171 times since May 3, but declined to provide specific evidence of the claims, according to Agence France-Presse.
Vietnam had claimed Wednesday that its patrol vessels were repeatedly rammed by Chinese ships protecting the deep-water drilling rig, showing video of the confrontations.
"China had to strengthen its security forces at the scene and take action to stop Vietnam's disruptive activities. In the face of Vietnamese provocation, China has maintained a high degree of restraint,” Yi said.
He said no Chinese military ships were present in the area, but that he did not know how many Chinese vessels were present.
China was willing to try and resolve the issue with Vietnam through talks, if Hanoi withdrew its ships, he said.
The confrontation is the most serious in the South China Sea in years, with both sides sending dozens of ships to the area around 220 kilometers (140 miles) off the Vietnamese coast since Beijing deployed the drilling rig there May 1.
Both countries claim the nearby Paracel Islands and the surrounding waters as their own—part of overlapping claims in the South China Sea by a host of Southeast Asian nations.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga blamed the rise in regional tensions on China’s “unilateral” move to drill in the disputed waters.
Tokyo was “deeply worried” about the row, he said, urging Beijing to rein in its “provocations.”
The U.S. warned both sides to de-escalate tensions and urged China to clarify its claims to the territory.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, who met with officials in Hanoi on Thursday, called on both sides to address the row in a “peaceful way.”
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki had on Wednesday condemned China’s “unilateral action” in sending the rig to the disputed waters, saying it “appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.”
Call for protests
In Vietnam, where the row with Beijing sent stock markets tumbling Thursday, activists called for protests against China over the weekend as citizens watched closely how their government would respond.
More than 20 civil society groups and associations penned an open letter calling for demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City aimed at “condemning acts of aggression by Chinese authorities.”
They demanded strong action and “appropriate measures” from Hanoi “to actually end the Chinese invasion of Vietnam's territorial waters immediately.”
Dozens of Vietnamese protesters against China’s actions over the South China Sea claims have been arrested in previous demonstrations while Vietnamese bloggers who criticized leaders in Hanoi for taking a soft stance against China in the dispute have faced harassment and detention.
On Thursday, prominent blogger Nguyen Van Dai, was beaten badly on his way home after adding his name to the open letter, which also called for the release of those detained for voicing criticism of Vietnam’s policies toward China.
The central committee of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party convened Thursday morning apparently with no word from the General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong about the latest flare-up with Beijing, sources said.
The row comes ahead of the May 10 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which four states have competing maritime territorial claims with China.
At the summit, individual countries affected by the dispute are expected to “take steps to prevent what’s happened to Vietnam,” Carl Thayer, a Vietnam scholar at the University of South Wales, told RFA.
“What China has done is provocative because it threatens every other country in the region,” he said.
China has “invested a lot of prestige” by deploying a large rig, and if Beijing keeps it there and begins drilling, “it tells countries in the region that over the long term, unless the U.S. protects them and comes in in a stronger way, China will bit by bit end up asserting its sovereignty” in the sea, he said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Asian countries have been pushing China to agree to a code of conduct for about a decade to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, which is known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.