Vietnamese Navy confronts Chinese ships in oil rig dispute

In this photo released by Vietnam’s coast guard, a Chinese ship, left, fires a water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right

HONG KONG — Tensions in the South China Sea intensified Wednesday as Vietnamese vessels confronted Chinese ships that were working to place an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast, and Vietnamese officials claimed that their ships had been rammed by the Chinese vessels.

Vietnam said the Chinese ships also fired water cannons at its flotilla in the encounter, injuring Vietnamese sailors, although Chinese officials did not confirm the incident. The skirmishing highlighted the hair-trigger tensions in the region as Asian nations try to contain China’s more aggressive posture in pursuing maritime claims in the South China Sea.

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“On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels,” Tran Duy Hai, a Foreign Ministry official, told a news conference in Hanoi. “Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels. Water cannon was used,” he said.

The confrontation occurred just days after the Chinese state oil company Cnooc stationed the oil rig 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, in waters claimed by China and Vietnam. The placement of the rig led to protests and demands by Vietnam that it be withdrawn, and the deployment of a Vietnamese naval flotilla to the area.

China’s state councilor, Yang Jiechi, rebutted the criticisms in a telephone call on Tuesday with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Mr. Yang said the rig was operating within Chinese waters, but Mr. Minh told the Chinese diplomat during the call that Vietnam would “take all suitable and necessary measures” to protect its rights and interests, according to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry.

The incident is the latest chapter in territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Taiwan also claims swaths of the ocean. The disputes themselves are not new, but an increasingly powerful China with new military capabilities to reinforce its claims has caused ripples in the region over the last few years. China claims expansive areas of the sea, encompassed in a “nine-dash line” map that critics have said has no basis in international law.

In another flare-up, the authorities in the Philippines have detained the crew of a Chinese fishing vessel in a disputed area of the South China Sea, officials said.

The Chinese government initially said that it had “lost contact” with 11 fishermen in the area and reported that the crew had been taken away Tuesday morning by armed men, who had fired warning shots before boarding the vessel. But on Wednesday, China acknowledged that the crew had been detained by the Philippine authorities near the Spratly Islands.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said that China has called upon authorities in the Philippines to “immediately” release the fishermen, to “make rational explanations” of its actions and to “take no more provocative action,” the Xinhua news agency reported.

Relations between China and the Philippines have grown increasingly tense over the last year because of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The tensions are flaring at a time when the American and Philippine armed forces are engaged in joint military exercises in the region and just after Washington and Manila forged a new security agreement.

Dante Padilla, a senior inspector with the Maritime Group of the Philippine National Police, said Wednesday afternoon in a phone interview that in addition to the Chinese fishing vessel’s crew, several hundred sea turtles were seized by a Philippine National Police patrol boat during the operation, near Half Moon Shoal.

“From our initial reports, there was no resistance from the apprehended vessel, and no shots were fired,” he said.

Mr. Padilla said the fishing boat was being escorted to the Philippine city of Puerto Princesa, where charges of poaching will be filed against the fishermen. They could also face charges related to the protection of wildlife, he said.

Mr. Padilla added that it was not clear when the vessel would arrive in Peurto Princesa.

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said later in a statement that the seizure of the boat “carrying large numbers of endangered species” was undertaken “to enforce maritime laws and uphold Philippine sovereignty rights over its E.E.Z.,” or exclusive economic zone.