Vietnamese plans to develop vast gasfields in the South China Sea have provoked a diplomatic spat with China, which has accused Hanoi of infringing its sovereignty.
Hanoi is adamant that its project for the Moc Tinh and Hai Thach fields, about 230 miles off the southern coast of Vung Tao, is within its territorial waters.
The $2bn gasfield and pipeline project, still in the planning stage, involves BP and the state-owned PetroVietnam. It is adjacent to gasfields that a BP-led consortium has been tapping for Vietnamese power generation since 2002.
“The co-operation project between PetroVietnam and BP of Britain has been implemented since 2000 and is within the bounds of Vietnam’s exclusive zones and continental shelf, completely under the sovereignty of Vietnam,” Le Dung, a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman, said on Thursday.
China, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim the Spratly Islands, a string of mostly uninhabited reefs and shoals in the South China Sea that are believed to sit atop large oil and gas deposits. Malaysia and the Philippines also claim parts of them. In 2002, China and members of the Association of South East Asian Nations signed a landmark agreement to exercise “self-restraint” and avoid activities that would “complicate or escalate” the long-simmering territorial dispute, which has threatened to erupt into a more serious conflict.
In 1988, Vietnam and China fought a brief naval battle during which more than 70 Vietnamese sailors died.
The re-emergence of the dispute this week comes after years of gradually warming ties and numerous top-level visits between the two wary neighbours. The two fought a brief border war in 1979 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and drove out the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge.
Vietnam’s president is due to visit China in the coming months to strengthen what has long been a tense and difficult bilateral relationship.
China and Vietnam agreed last year to establish a joint commission to study their borders. But Carlye Thayer, at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said the dispute highlighted that there were many issues to be resolved. “This is one irritant that has emerged,” he said.