Chinese ships have rammed and sprayed water cannon at Vietnamese coast guard vessels that were trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, ramping up tensions in the disputed waters, Hanoi officials said Wednesday.
At least six Vietnamese were slightly injured and several boats were damaged in confrontations in the past three days, Vietnamese officials said, after China deployed a drilling rig last week in waters claimed by both countries around 220 kilometers (140 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.
Dozens of navy and coast guard vessels from both countries are now in the area near the disputed Paracel Islands, in a standoff that prompted concern from the United States as China accused Vietnam of disrupting activities in its sovereign territory.
Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam's coast guard, told a specially arranged news conference in Hanoi that the Chinese ships had crashed into Vietnamese ones intentionally, warning Vietnam would respond in self-defense if the confrontations continue.
"Our maritime police and fishing protection forces have practiced extreme restraint [and] we will continue to hold on there," Thu said, according to the Associated Press.
"But if [the Chinese ships] continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense,” he said.
He showed video of the Vietnamese ships being smashed into and pelted with high-powered water cannons.
China has deployed as many as 80 vessels, including seven military ships, accompanied by air support to guard the oil rig, he said.
China deployed the oil rig on May 1, saying no foreign ships would be allowed within a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) radius.
Vietnam’s foreign minister denounced the move as illegal and a violation of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, demanding earlier this week that China remove the rig.
Both countries claim the Paracels and surrounding territorial waters as their own—part of overlapping claims by a host of Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday defended China’s drilling at the site as “normal and legal.”
"The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China's sovereign rights," she told a regular news briefing.
Reports of the collisions prompted strong concern from the U.S. State Department, which slammed China’s move to introduce the rig into disputed waters.
“Given the recent history of tensions in the South China Sea, China’s unilateral decision to introduce its oil rig into these disputed waters is provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Nguyen Manh Hung, a Vietnamese political science professor at George Mason University in the U.S., warned that with tensions between China and Vietnam over the waters ramped up higher than ever, the situation could escalate into military conflict.
“This is a very serious incident compared to any incident before between the two countries,” he said, saying it is much more serious than past disputes involving civilian fishing boats near the Paracels.
“This is a collision between the two countries, and it threatens the security of the region,” he said.
“Any tensions can escalate the situation. And when it escalates, military conflict could happen out of an accident,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
He said the collisions are sure to prompt strong action from Vietnam, or else Vietnam will lose any claim it has to the Paracels.
“The challenge for Vietnam this time is to make this issue public and call for support from other countries,” he said.
News of the collisions came while tensions simmered elsewhere in the South China Sea as Beijing demanded the release of a Chinese fishing boat and its crew seized by the Philippines, accusing Manila of being “provocative.”
The Philippines said Wednesday police had detained the 11 crewmen on charges of catching endangered sea turtles in near Half Moon Shoal in the disputed Spratly Island chain.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Asian countries have pushed China to agree to a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, which is known in Vietnam as the East Sea.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.