China yesterday warned its Asian neighbors to stop searching for oil near the disputed Spratly Islands and vowed to assert its sovereignty over the potentially petroleum-rich territory in the South China Sea despite rival claims.
China and the Philippines have swapped diplomatic protests over the islands, with Filipino officials accusing Chinese forces of intruding into Manila-claimed areas six times since February and of firing shots in at least one incident.
Beijing denied the allegation yesterday and said it would use violence only when attacked.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has accused China of flaring tensions in the sea by hindering the operation of an oil and gas exploration boat for the second time in two weeks.
The Spratlys, which are believed to be atop vast oil and gas reserves, have long been feared as a potential flash point of armed conflict in Asia.
The chain of barren, largely uninhabited islands, reefs and banks are claimed wholly by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and partly by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Addressing Manila’s complaints for the first time, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Liu Jianchao (劉建超) denied that his government committed any intrusion.
Liu said no Chinese vessel fired on Filipino fishermen, but suggested that Chinese forces took action to keep the exploration ship from the Reed Bank.
“That’s part of our exercise of jurisdiction. It’s not harassment,” Liu said.
Liu said some of Manila’s allegations were sparked by rumors, like a claim that Chinese fighter jets flew near Philippine patrol planes over Spratly Islands claimed by Manila.
He said China had not started to drill for oil in the contested region and warned other claimants to stop any oil exploration in the Chinese-claimed area without Beijing’s permission. China claims the entire South China Sea.
“We’re calling on other parties to stop searching for the possibility of exploiting resources in these areas where China has its claims,” he told reporters.
He said China was open to engaging other claimant countries in jointly exploring for oil and gas in the region.
Asked what would happen if countries defy China, Liu said that Beijing would assert its right over the disputed region diplomatically.
“We will never use force unless we are attacked,” he said.
In Vietnam, foreign ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said in a press briefing that a Chinese fishing boat supported by two patrol vessels yesterday morning damaged the exploration cable of the seismic survey boat operated by state-owned PetroVietnam.
She said the actions of the Chinese boats were “completely premeditated” and “seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereign rights.”
The incident came just two weeks after Chinese patrol boats cut another cable on a survey boat off its central coast. Hanoi says both incidents occurred well within the 200 nautical miles (340km) guaranteed to Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone by international law.
Nga said Vietnam’s foreign ministry officials lodged a protest with Chinese embassy officials yesterday.