Tensions in the South China Sea escalated yesterday 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 argument turned into a confrontation when the Chinese vessels fired water cannon at Vietnamese ships.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry accused China of 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. Yesterday the Philippines detained a Chinese fishing vessel and crew that were reportedly fishing for endangered sea turtles.
Just weeks ago President Barack Obama toured Asia as part of his foreign policy “pivot” to the region, aimed at countering the rise of China. The US called the moving of the oil rig “provocative and unhelpful”.
Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for east Asia, travelled to Vietnam yesterday on a scheduled trip. Speaking in Hong Kong en route to Hanoi, he said “the global economy is too fragile and regional stability is too important to be put at risk over short-term economic advantage”.
Vietnam told China this week 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 yesterday 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 Manila over the Spratly Islands, which it calls the Nansha, and with Tokyo over contested islands in the East China Sea.
Additional reporting by Roel Landingin in Manila