EXTREMELY DANGEROUS ACTION
China and Vietnam fired accusations at each other on Tuesday after the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands where the nations are locked in a tense maritime stand-off.
Hanoi said a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Vietnamese boat on Monday about 17 nautical miles from where China has placed an oil rig in a move that has sparked the worst crisis in Sino-Vietnamese ties in years. Chinese state media said the boat "capsized after harassing and colliding with a Chinese fishing boat".
Dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese ships – naval, coastguard and fishing vessels – have been testing each other near the oil rig, escalating the risk of confrontation. China won control of the Paracels in 1974 following a brief conflict with Vietnam. The move recently sparked riots across Vietnam that targeted foreign factories.
"Vietnam has sent a number of ships to obstruct the drilling of Chinese companies in the waters where the collision took place," China's state-run Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday.
China insists that there is no dispute over the waters, which it claims as its territory, but the move to drill there has sparked condemnation in Hanoi and beyond. The US criticised the move as "provocative". Japan on Tuesday described the latest incident as "an extremely dangerous action that could threaten people's lives".
Hanoi said the latest incident was the fourth time in three weeks that a Vietnamese boat was attacked or raided by Chinese vessels. In one incident on May 7, a Chinese fisheries bureau ship allegedly assaulted a Vietnamese fishing boat with gunshots, water cannon, hammers, bottles and heavy steel bolts, and also used sickles to cut cables and destroy communication and positioning systems.
Beijing is engaged in a number of increasingly dangerous territorial disputes in Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday criticised Beijing after two Chinese fighter jets "dangerously" intercepted Japanese spy planes that were monitoring a joint naval exercise being conducted by Chinese and Russian forces. In response, China accused Japan of interfering with the naval exercises.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have for decades had overlapping claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. But tensions have soared in recent years as China expands the size of its navy and coast guard and becomes more aggressive in asserting its territorial claims.
Gary Li, a China expert at IHS Maritime, says China has significantly boosted its coast guard fleet in recent years. According to his data, China has 60 coastguard vessels, compared with 31 a decade ago. This year alone, 11 ships entered service and another 38 have been ordered.
Chinese ships have been involved in numerous confrontations, including with US navy vessels. Aside from the recent incidents with Vietnamese ships, they have also repeatedly tried to block Philippine boats from supplying a navy ship called the Sierra Madre that is lodged on the Second Thomas Shoal. Manila deliberately ran the ship aground in 1999 in an effort to reinforce its territorial claims.
The maritime tensions will come into focus at the weekend when Asian defence ministers meet in Singapore at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue defence forum. Mr Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister to address the event, which will also be attended by Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, and Fu Ying, the former Chinese ambassador to the UK who is currently representative for the National People's Congress, China's rubber stamp legislature.
Many countries in the region are concerned about China's "nine-dash line", a demarcation on Chinese maps that suggest that China lays claim to most of the South China Sea. Manila recently asked an international tribunal to declare the line invalid, in a move that infuriated Beijing. Vietnam has also suggested that it might follow suit in bringing an international arbitration case against Beijing.
Cnooc, the Chinese energy group that owns the controversial oil rig, on Tuesday said the platform would be moved to a new location for phase two of exploratory drilling without providing any detail. The drilling is scheduled to end in mid-August.
Liu Zhenmin, China's vice foreign minister, on Tuesday said the South China Sea was more important for China than other countries because it was "the lifeline for China at sea". But he said Beijing was committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes.
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