Last updated: May 8, 2014 10:31 am

US slams China over Vietnamese vessels dispute 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

The US condemned China on Wednesday for moving an oil rig into waters disputed with Vietnam, calling the decision “provocative” and likely to “raise tensions”.

These tensions in the South China Sea had earlier escalated dramatically after Vietnam said Chinese ships rammed its vessels near the Paracel Islands and the Philippines detained a Chinese fishing boat and crew.

China and Vietnam have traded rhetoric in recent days after China moved an oil rig near the disputed islands. But the situation turned into a confrontation on Wednesday when the Chinese vessels fired water cannons at Vietnamese ships and deliberately rammed them, according to the government in Hanoi.

“This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behaviour to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region,” said Jennifer Psaki, US state department spokeswoman.

While China has accused Vietnam of infringing its sovereignty, a senior Chinese official on Thursday played down the incident, saying it was not a “clash”, according to Reuters.

The strong statement from the US state department follows a number of occasions in recent months when the Obama administration has adopted tough rhetoric to criticise Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

This was also a major theme of President Barack Obama’s recent trip to the region. In particular, the US has challenged China over the so-called “nine-dash line” map, which contains Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea.

The US has backed the effort by the Philippines to seek international arbitration over its territorial dispute with China. In her statement on Wednesday, Ms Psaki said that the latest stand-off between China and Vietnam highlights “the need for claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law”.

Earlier, Vietnam’s foreign ministry accused China of deliberately ramming its ships and said several sailors were injured in the clash. The Associated Press cited two diplomats saying 29 Vietnamese ships had been dispatched to the area.

China has territorial disputes with many neighbours, but particularly with Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been the most willing to push back. On Wednesday, the Philippines detained a Chinese fishing vessel and crew that were reportedly fishing for endangered sea turtles.

Earlier this week, Vietnam told China to stop the “illegal” drilling. But Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, told his counterpart in Hanoi on Tuesday that “Vietnamese harassment . . . has severely violated China’s sovereignty”.

The clashes on Wednesday appear to be the most serious between the countries in years. In 1974, China went to war with the Republic of Vietnam over the Paracels – called the Xisha in Chinese – and regained control over the islands. China is also embroiled in disputes with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands – which it calls the Nansha – and with Tokyo over contested islands in the East China Sea.

Japan on Thursday said it was “strongly concerned” about the rising tensions in the South China Sea due to “China’s unilateral exploration”, according to Kyodo News.

While China and its neighbours have quarrelled over the South China Sea for decades, Beijing has taken a more assertive position over the past five years. In addition to clashes with Vietnamese and Philippine vessels, Chinese ships have been involved in two incidents with US ships.

In depth

Asia maritime tensions

Asia Maritime Tensions

Latest news and comment on the escalating disputes over islands and territorial waters between an increasingly assertive China and its neighbours

As well as becoming more assertive at sea, China has also taken steps at home to build support for its expansive view of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Chinese state television recently broadcast an eight-part documentary that lionises the coast guard and fisheries bureau for their efforts to protect China’s maritime rights and resources.

One episode describes how the coast guard dealt with Vietnamese ships that had “savagely obstructed” Chinese exploration vessels. The narrator says the Chinese ships “fearlessly confronted the armed fleets several times its own size and fought a grand battle . . . and resolutely safeguarded China’s marine rights and interests”.

In recent months, China has twice tried to prevent Philippine boats from resupplying an old ship that was previously run aground on the Second Thomas Shoal. In 2012, Chinese and Philippine vessels had a tense month-long stand-off that raised concerns about China’s intentions around the region.

Additional reporting by Roel Landingin in Manila

Twitter: @AsiaNewsDemetri

demetri.sevastopulo@ft.com

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