Vietnam has denounced “illegal” incursions into its territorial waters by Chinese survey vessels, calling for support at an Asean meeting in Bangkok this week.
Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh told his Asean counterparts that Hanoi was demanding an end to China’s “unilateral action, including … increasing military exercises” in the South China Sea.
But despite Minh’s reference to “serious concerns”, Asean’s foreign ministers again failed to send a unified message on the issue, after facing opposition from Cambodia and Laos, which fall within China’s sphere of influence.
“Concerns were expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area,” the minister said in a final communique.
The phrase “serious incidents” was stronger than that in the statement after their 2018 meeting.
Minh said a particular concern was the recent “activities of Chinese oil survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts” inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. The minister said it was a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty under the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea.
The China Geological Survey last month completed a 12-day study of the disputed Spratly Islands, the US-based Centre for Advanced Defence Studies reported.
The Chinese flotilla intruded into an offshore oil block licensed by Vietnam to a Spanish oil producer, the think tank said.
Tensions also flared after it was revealed last month that China had test-fired anti-ship ballistic missiles – which would be particularly threatening to US naval vessels – in disputed areas of the region.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed solidarity with Hanoi. Japan has a parallel dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea.
Kono reportedly said the South China Sea situation “has been deteriorating every year” and that Japan shared Asean’s worries.
The minster asked for a peaceful resolution to the dispute and called for demilitarisation of the waters.
A Vietnamese fishing lobby group this week condemned Chinese intrusions, calling on the Hanoi government to defend their livelihoods.
China’s foreign policy chief responded this week by warning Asean not to amplify disputes in the South China Sea.
Chinese Councillor Wang Yi, who met his Asean counterparts in Bangkok, said: “We think non-regional countries should not deliberately amplify such differences or disputes left from the past.” He was responding to a question about US involvement.
“Non-regional countries should also not make use of these differences to sow distrust between China and Asean.”
Comments by the hawkish US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were “slanderous”, Wang said.
China claims around 90 per cent of the South China Sea, including territory internationally recognised as belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.
Beijing is determined to extend its grip on the South China Sea. Picture credit: US Defence