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Vietnam-China: No Easing of Tension
Jun 19, 2014

China and Vietnam exchanged sharp views in their dispute over a Chinese oil rig deployed in contested waters in the South China Sea near Vietnam’s coast and appear to have made little headway in cooling tensionsi.

China’s state councilor, Yang Jiechi, accused Vietnam, which has sent ships to the area, of conducting unlawful interference in the operations of the rig, and told Vietnam that China would take all necessary measures to safeguard its national sovereignty.

Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, said that China had instead violated Vietnam’s sovereignty, and added that China had breached international and regional agreements on the South China Sea. The Chinese had also hurt the feelings of the people of Vietnam.

The uncompromising language was unusual for diplomatic statements describing discussions between two Communist countries, and reflected the unyielding positions since China sent the rig last month to a position 120 miles off the coast of Vietnam and close to the Paracel Islands, which both countries claim. 

Unlike China, Vietnam called for negotiations under the auspices of the Convention of the Law of the Sea, a position Vietnam has adopted since the start of the recent conflict. But the Chinese diplomat insisted that there was no dispute over the Paracel Islands. The Chinese Foreign Ministry made no reference to the possibility of negotiations, a basic tenet of China in matters to do with the South China Sea.

Vietnam says the waters around the oil rig are its territory because they fall within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, while China bases its claim on the waters’ proximity to the Paracels.

To protect the rig, China has dispatched a large contingent of Coast Guard vessels that have established a perimeter. A smaller flotilla of Vietnamese Coast Guard and fishing boats try to penetrate the cordon, and the vessels from each side ram each other regularly.

Military ships from both sides are in the general area of the rig, according to American officials. China seized control of the southern Paracel Islands from South Vietnam in a war in 1974.

To back up its claim to the Paracels, China recently released a 1958 letter from Pham Van Dong, then the prime minister of Vietnam, to Premier Zhou Enlai of China. It said that Vietnam recognized China’s sovereignty over the islands. Vietnam has argued the letter has no validity because it was written under duress.

The arrival of the rig so close to the Paracels has become a defining event in the mounting campaign by China to control vast portions of the South China Sea, a vital waterway for international commerce where other countries also have claims.

The standoff led to violent protests in Vietnam.


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