May 8, 2014 8:21 pm

China accuses Hanoi of harassing oil rig in South China Sea

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In this photo released by Vietnam Coast Guard, a Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence Wednesday, a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint. (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard)©AP

In this photo released by Vietnam's coast guard, a Chinese ship, left, fires a water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right

Beijing has accused Hanoi of “harassing” a Chinese oil rig towed into disputed waters in the South China Sea, claiming that Vietnamese vessels had “interfered” with Chinese ships 171 times since a stand-off began last Saturday.

Earlier, the US waded into the dispute , calling China’s deployment of the rig “provocative” after Vietnam said Chinese ships had rammed its vessels, injuring several sailors.

The stand-off, which involves dozens of ships from the two nations, is the latest flare-up as China gradually stakes out its claim to nearly all the waters of the South China Sea, most of which are also claimed by other neighbouring nations. China’s third-largest oil company Cnooc placed the rig about 150 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified in 1996, recognises an exclusive economic zone extending up to 200 miles from each nation’s coast. But China’s “nine-dash line”, also known as the “cow’s tongue”, hugs the coasts of several southeast Asian nations bordering the sea, and has caused friction in the region.

The jousting in the South China Sea follows President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia, during which he signed a defence pact with the Philippines allowing Washington to base ships and aircraft there. While in Tokyo, Mr Obama also declared that the US considered disputed islands in the East China Sea to fall under its military alliance with Japan – a longstanding American position but the first time that a US president had stated it publicly.

Chinese military strategists worry that the US is trying to encircle or contain it, and argue that the country needs to develop a stronger naval force in response.

Beijing bases its rights to the South China Sea on its claims to the Paracel Islands, a group of reefs and islets in the middle of the sea that it has occupied since a naval clash with Vietnam in 1974. The rig is located 17 nautical miles from Triton Island, said Yi Xianliang, the deputy director-general of the department of boundary and ocean affairs under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We are willing to negotiate with Vietnam, but they must stop their harassment and withdraw their fleet. I believe that under these preconditions we can sort out the issue,” Mr Yi said at a hastily called press conference in which not a single Chinese media organisation raised a question.

He refused to specify how many Chinese ships were in the area, or to confirm a Vietnamese estimate that China has deployed 80 ships to Vietnam’s 30.

Tensions over the South China Sea also stem from its status as a rich fishing ground and home to extensive oil and gas deposits.

Cnooc 981, China’s first self-developed deep-sea drilling platform, is operated by COSL, an oil services subsidiary of Cnooc. The $832m rig was commissioned in China two years ago and began operations in an eastern portion of the South China Sea.

Li Yong, the chief executive of COSL, said he did not know what oil block the rig was currently working on. He was also unable to give the number of COSL employees on the rig.

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