China has defended its shooting of what it called Vietnamese "robbers" in the Gulf of Tonkin, after Hanoi demanded Beijing punish police who killed nine Vietnamese fishermen in early January.
Sailors on three Vietnamese boats robbed and fired on Chinese fisherman in the gulf on Jan. 8, prompting police to return fire, Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said in a statement.
Kong said the Chinese boats were in China's waters when they were attacked. Maritime police rushed to the site and ``were forced to take necessary actions'' when the Vietnamese boats opened fire, he said.
"It was really a serious armed robbery incident at sea," Kong said in the statement, posted on the ministry Web site www.mfa.gov.cn late on Friday.
"Having received calls for help, Chinese public security boats rushed to the area for rescue, but the three armed boats first shot at the Chinese boats and law enforcement personnel," he said.
"[The police] shot dead several robbers and seized one ship and eight robbers," he said. "They also confiscated some weapons and ammunition."
The Xinhua report did not say how many Vietnamese were killed.
Vietnamese officials, however, have said Chinese coast guards fired on two Vietnamese fishing boats in separate attacks, killing nine Vietnamese and wounding six others.
They have asked that the Chinese maritime authorities be punished for their "wrongful acts," saying that the Vietnamese boats were in waters shared by the two sides.
But Kong said the Vietnamese "confessed they had carried out four other armed robberies aimed at Chinese fishing boats in the gulf."
He said Beijing had informed Hanoi of the case and will continue to investigate. The Chinese side has gathered plenty of evidence and witnesses, he said.
Fishing rights have long been caught up in territorial disputes between China and Vietnam which, despite ideological and cultural similarities, have historically had testy relations.
"China is willing to cooperate with the Vietnam side to tighten cooperations in cracking down on all criminal offences at sea and maintaining joint efforts to promote safety and stability in the northern gulf," Kong said, using the Chinese name for the Gulf of Tonkin.
He did not elaborate.
China and Vietnam signed a fishing agreement in 2000, but Beijing stirred a protest from Hanoi in August 2002 by banning fishing in the South China Sea, over which Vietnam claims jurisdiction.
In late December, China held nine Vietnamese fishing boats and their crew of 80 on the southern island province of Hainan on suspicion of trespassing in Chinese waters, Chinese media reported.
The shooting incident is the latest territorial disagreement between China and Vietnam, which have a history of such disputes.
The Spratly Islands, an uninhabited archipelago in the South China Sea, are the center of another long-standing dispute between the two sides. The area is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and is also claimed all or in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.