World Bulletin/News Desk
The United States on Tuesday sharply criticized the movement of a huge Chinese oil rig that Vietnam says has entered its waters, the latest show of Beijing's growing assertiveness to raise alarm among smaller countries in the region.
The Vietnamese accusation came days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies there, including Japan and the Philippines who are themselves locked in territorial disputes with China.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: "Given the recent history of tensions in the South China Sea, China's decision to operate its oil rig in disputed waters is provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region."
"These events point to the need for claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law, and reach an agreement ... about what types of activities should be permissible within disputed areas," she added.
Vietnam also protested the move.
"Vietnam cannot accept this, and resolutely protests this action by China," the foreign ministry said on its website, summarizing comments by Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who spoke to his Chinese counterpart by telephone on Tuesday.
A ministry official said the two countries had been in direct talks about the issue since Sunday, but did not say how China had responded to Vietnam's requests. China has said the rig was operating completely within its waters.
"We believe that it is critically important for each of the claimant countries to exercise care and restraint," he told Reuters during a visit to Hong Kong ahead of a previously scheduled trip to Hanoi on Wednesday.
"The global economy is too fragile and regional stability is too important to be put at risk over short term economic advantage."
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. It also has a separate maritime dispute with Japan.
Its claims coincide with growing diplomatic and military influence in the region and have raised fears of possible conflict.
The Maritime Safety Administration of China (MSAC) announced on its website on Saturday that all vessels should keep one mile (1.6 km) away from the rig, called the Haiyang Shiyou 981. It expanded that to three miles on Monday.
The $1 billion rig is owned by China's state-run CNOOC oil company and it had been drilling south of Hong Kong.
The Philippines said last month that the United States had a treaty obligation to help in case of an attack on its territory or armed forces in the South China Sea, although Obama did not say categorically that Washington would do so.
But the positioning of such a large structure in disputed waters was seen by some analysts as a significant escalation in the dispute.
"There have been standoffs with survey ships in the past, but this is something new," said Storey of the Institute of South East Asian Studies.
"They will have to respond to a challenge to their sovereignty, and when they do, China will be sure to make a counter move, so we are in a situation where a potentially very dangerous scenario could unfold."
China's Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, wrote in an editorial on Tuesday that China should show a "firm attitude" towards Vietnam.
"China follows a moderate policy. But no country can always show a smiling face to the world. China shouldn't be angered easily, but if its interests are infringed upon, a strong retaliatory move should be expected," it said.