China has warned other countries to stay out of an ongoing dispute in the South China Sea, as tensions mount in a territorial row with Vietnam.
‘We hope that countries that are not parties to the South China Sea dispute truly respect the efforts of the countries concerned to resolve their disputes through consultation,’ Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei as saying.
The warning follows a request by Vietnam earlier this week for international involvement in the dispute with its neighbour after a series of incidents that Vietnam has blamed on China, including Chinese fishing vessels allegedly intentionally cutting the cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas exploration vessel operating in the region.
Speaking last week, Hong denied the Chinese vessels were at fault, saying: ‘China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters. Chinese fishing boats have been operating in the waters off Vanguard Bank for generations.’
This does of course have a familiar ring – Chinese fishing boats were excused what was clearly an attempt at ramming Japan Coast Guard vessels last year as China claimed the waters around the Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) islands are not disputed, but Chinese territory.
The spat with Japan turned ugly, as China quickly ratcheted up the rhetoric against Japan, which briefly detained the captain of the Chinese fishing vessel involved. It also appeared to halt shipments of rare earth metals crucial to high-tech Japanese industry, claiming implausibly that Chinese suppliers all spontaneously decided to halt shipments.
International opinion seemed broadly with Japan on the issue in the face of what many saw as a Chinese overreaction. With this in mind, and conscious of the fact that Vietnam might well garner sympathy as the military underdog, China appears to be treading a little more carefully.
Vietnam has for its part announced details of a military draft to take effect from August 1. The decree, announced by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, outlines who would be exempt from any call-up, in what has been interpreted as a message for a domestic audience that Vietnam will stand up for its rights against an aggressive China.
Minxin Pei wrote an interesting piece for us on the issue earlier this week, calling on China to seize the moral high ground and suspend its patrol activities in the disputed areas to avoid any possible accidental conflict.
So far, though, both sides are digging their heels in.