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Tensions grow in South China Sea

Vietnam to hold naval exercises

By Michael Wines
New York Times / June 11, 2011

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BEIJING — The Vietnamese government said yesterday that it would conduct live-fire naval exercises off its coast next week, a step that escalated a long-running dispute with China over South China Sea territory that both nations claim.

The naval maneuvers follow an exchange of sharp statements Thursday. Vietnam claimed that China had harassed a seismic survey boat, damaging a research cable trailing behind it; China demanded that Vietnam halt all oil-exploration activities in the disputed area.

In an announcement on its website, Vietnam’s state-run Northern Maritime Safety Corp. said nine hours of naval exercises would be held Monday off the country’s central coast, and it warned other vessels to avoid the area. This is the first time that the government has publicized a live-ammunition drill, the Associated Press reported.

The diplomatic flare-up between China and Vietnam is the most serious confrontation this year in a territorial dispute that also involves the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. The five countries have competing claims to parts of the South China Sea bed, which may hold valuable oil and mineral deposits. Arguments over the territory have continued for years, and the nations signed a 2002 accord that committed them to show restraint in disputed waters.

The issue heated up again last year because of a UN treaty that required all nations that maintain claims to continental-shelf seabed to file those claims formally by the end of 2009.

The documents that Vietnam and China filed to comply with the treaty asserted their competing territorial claims in the South China Sea more aggressively than they had before.

China has seized scores of Vietnamese fishing boats in recent years, and Vietnam has responded with naval activities.

China blames Vietnam for the research cable episode, saying that armed Vietnamese boats were illegally chasing Chinese fishing boats out of the area, and that a Chinese net accidentally snagged the research cable. Vietnam, however, called the damage to the research cable premeditated and said it was the second such confrontation in recent weeks.

Both episodes, Vietnam said, took place within the exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast, which is reserved to Hanoi under international law. China claims the same kind of zone based on its coastline, and the claims overlap, especially in areas surrounding small islands in the sea whose ownership is disputed.

Both countries are seeking to establish a demonstrated presence in the area, a principal requirement for pressing a territorial claim should negotiations over the maritime boundaries become serious.

One reason the dispute has flared in recent years is that the 2002 accord has proved to be toothless, Michael Vatikiotis, a security expert at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue in Singapore, said in a telephone interview.

China’s neighbors have grown increasingly uncomfortable as the People’s Liberation Army Navy has opened a submarine base on Hainan Island, on the edge of the sea, and as China’s growing navy has ranged across the area.

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