Amid growing sea tensions, China says no 'clash' with Vietnam

By AN DIEN contributed to this report., Thanh Nien News

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A day after Vietnam released images of Chinese ships ramming Vietnamese vessels traveling in their wake, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping played down the tensions created by China’s oil rig incursion.
China and Vietnam can resolve their disputes at sea peacefully and this week's incident did not represent a "clash", Reuters quoted Guoping as saying.
On Wednesday, Vietnam held an international press conference, releasing images and information about Chinese vessels which intentionally rammed several of its ships in the East Sea, also known as the South China Sea.
The various incidents, which happened on different occasions between May 3 and May 7, occurred after China deployed roughly 80 ships to guard a giant mobile rig drilling for oil and gas in Vietnamese waters, just 120 nautical miles off the central coast.
Images released at the conference showed Chinese boats ramming and firing water cannons at Vietnamese vessels, damaging the ships and injuring Vietnamese fisheries surveillance officers.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam's Marine Police, said that Vietnamese maritime police and fishing protection forces have practiced extreme restraint: “We will continue to hold on there. But if (the Chinese ships) continue to ram into us, we will respond by taking defensive measures."
The US and its Asian allies, Japan and Singapore, have said China’s decision to push the oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time into disputed waters is “provocative" and "raises tensions.”
Daniel Russel, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, held a press briefing at the US embassy in Hanoi on Thursday (May 8), calling for peaceful solutions between relevant sides.
China’s incursion condemned
Following China’s deployment of the oil rig and flotilla into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, international experts have condemned China for ratcheting up tensions.
Mohan Malik, a professor of Asian Security at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said China has never ruled out the use of force to seize what it claims to be its own, whether it's Taiwan or the Senkakus in the East China Sea or the Paracel islands or the Spratlys in the South China Sea.
“Coming close on the heels of President Obama's trip to East Asia, the deployment of naval vessels to protect the oil rig constitutes a deliberate escalation,” he said.
Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the dispute, said a worst-case scenario would be "a skirmish and a sharp downturn in China-Vietnam relations."
Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said China’s latest actions reflected China's "art of war" in the South China Sea, which combines the use of non-military force up front with a veiled threat of military force behind it.
“This is against the spirit of international law. It also is a clear violation of the Declaration on the Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea to which China is a signatory,” he told Thanh Nien News.
He said Vietnam has no other alternatives.
“If it did not dispatch its coast guard vessels to confront the..oil rig, its failure to act would only strengthen China's position regarding the Paracel Islands and the U-shaped line,” he said.
China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim territory in the East Sea.
China's claim is the largest: a "U-shape line” that covers most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km). The claim has been emphatically rejected by international scholars as illegitimate and overreaching.
According to Vuving, tensions will increase, but not necessarily escalate into an armed conflict.
“The worst-case scenario, therefore, is a creeping and stealthy transformation of the status quo into a 'new normal', where China thinks that others have acquiesced to its self-proclaimed 'sovereignty right' to the South China Sea,” he said.
“This would have tremendous implications for global politics and security.”

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