Vowing to assert sovereignty in the disputed Spratly Islands, China on Thursday warned its neighbors to stop searching for oil in the contested region without its permission.
The warning came amid a report from Hanoi that China, for the second time in two weeks, on Thursday harassed a Vietnamese vessel conducting seismic surveys within Vietnam’s continental shelf.
Vietnam’s prime minister said Hanoi was determined to protect its “incontestable” sovereignty over areas it claims in the South China Sea in an intensifying war of words with Beijing.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, smarting at Beijing’s stepped-up criticism of the Philippines, scoffed at China’s demands.
“For heaven’s sake, don’t lecture to us. We can equally lecture to you even if you are a giant,” Enrile told reporters.
A day after Beijing warned Manila to refrain from unilateral actions that could damage Chinese sovereignty, Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao issued another warning.
Totally China’s territory
“We’re calling on all parties to stop searching the possibility of exploiting resources in the area where China has claims. At the same time, if the countries want to do so, you can talk to China about the possibility of having a joint cooperation development and exploitation of natural resources,” Liu said.
Asked about reports of oil exploration in the disputed region, Liu said: “China hasn’t started drilling oil wells in this region. Personally, I don’t know anything about what was reported. China has a large maritime area, for example in East China Sea.”
Recently, Manila lodged a protest in the United Nations over the harassment by a Chinese vessel of a Department of Energy vessel.
“It’s not harassment. It’s a normal practice and exercise of jurisdiction, and the rumor was the Chinese vessels made an ammunition assault, which is not true,” Liu said.
He added that the Reed Bank—which the Philippines calls Kalayaan—was “totally within China’s territorial claims.”
The ambassador urged all parties to set aside differences and engage in joint cooperation.
“Peaceful means is the only option for China and we’re determined to carry on with peaceful consultations with our partners, our neighbors who are also claiming the Nansha (Spratly) Islands. So I hope that all countries will face it with reality and consider overall peace and stability in the region,” Liu said.
The ambassador said it was unfortunate that the current dispute with the Philippines began with a “bad rumor,” referring to reports of Chinese jet fighters allegedly intruding into Philippine airspace near the Spratlys.
Liu denied the reports and added that these had been clarified with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
But Eduardo Batac, spokesperson of the Department of National Defense, said the Philippine military was standing by previous government statements on Chinese “intrusions.”
“We are bringing our case to the international community and we will let the international community be the judge with regard to the actions taken by the Chinese,” Batac said.
He declined to comment on strongly worded statements from Beijing.
Manila has accused Beijing of intrusions into its territory, citing six instances, including one in March when two Chinese patrol boats tried to ram a Philippine survey ship.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all claim territories in the South China Sea, which covers an important shipping route and is thought to hold untapped oil and gas reserves.
Enrile said China was treating the Philippines like a “doormat” in the dispute over the Spratlys.
He said this was “normally the attitude of a powerful country against a weak country.”
Enrile said the best defense against such “bullying” was for the Philippines to build up its economic and military power, but he doubted that the country was in a position to do this now.
“If you have a bully as a neighbor, and you don’t want to prepare against that bully, you will be a doormat of your neighbor,” he said.
“We do not want to develop the wherewithal to tell the guy who is going to bully us, ‘You try to come near me and I’ll show you how to bite you like a flea. We can’t even act as a flea because we have no sting,’” he added.
The country’s “paper boat” is no match against China’s military might and the Philippines could not rely on the United Nations and even the United States to defend it from China, Enrile said.
“We can only pray, ‘God please help us.’ What are we going to fight China with? They would only send two destroyers, and we’d surrender,” he said. “You can raise your voice, but if they attack us, we run away.”
In Thursday’s incident, a Chinese fishing boat deployed a “cable cutting device” and got it trapped in a network of underwater cables in use by a ship hired by Vietnam, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Nguyen Phuong Nga, said in Hanoi.
The report coincided with published comments by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, communist Vietnam’s most powerful figure, deploring a similar incident in May and underscoring the seriousness with which the government views it.
“We continue to affirm strongly and to manifest the strongest determination of all the Party, of all the people and of all the army in protecting Vietnamese sovereignty in maritime zones and islands of the country,” Dung said in comments reported by the Thanh Nien daily on Thursday.
He also reaffirmed “the incontestable maritime sovereignty of Vietnam toward the two archipelagos, the Paracels and Spratlys.”
Hundreds of people held a peaceful anti-China protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi on Sunday, the largest action of its kind since 2007. Protests are rare in authoritarian Vietnam.
In his news conference, Liu was asked about China’s plans to hold peaceful consultations despite exercising its jurisdiction over the islets.
The Chinese diplomat pointed to a previous cooperation between China, the Philippines and Vietnam on a seismic survey.
“That’s why we propose to the Philippine government to have joint exploitation in the areas with regard to development survey and exploitation of oil and gas resources, that’s the perfect formula. That’s why we call for a positive response from the Philippine side,” he explained.
“Let me reaffirm that China is firm (in) its claim to the territorial sovereignty over the area and at the same time is also firm in committing itself to a peaceful settlement of the issue,” he said.
The Chinese government believes the best way is to have joint cooperation and that China “cannot accept that one country taking unilateral actions for personal and private gains at the sacrifice of the interest of other parties,” Liu said.
He pointed out that through such a setup, all parties would benefit.
“That’s why we recognize the differences, the difficulties at this stage of finding a proper settlement over the territorial dispute, so the best formula is cooperation,” Liu said. With reports from TJ Burgonio, DJ Yap, AFP and Reuters