Vietnam and China face off in South China Sea

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Vietnam and China face off in South China Sea
In this photo released by Vietnam Coast Guard, a Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence Wednesday, a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint. (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard)
In this video image released by Vietnam Coast Guard, Vietnamese surveillance ship crew members stand near the side of the ship, allegedly damaged after being rammed by a Chinese ship, in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Chinese ships have been ramming into and firing water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from putting an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to officials and video footage Wednesday, in a dangerous escalation of tensions over waters considered a global flashpoint. (AP Photo/Vietnam Coast Guard)
A Chinese ship rams two Vietnamese vessels in South China Sea https://t.co/nrdrVLyya5 http://t.co/mMcex3nKF7
This picture taken on May 6, 2013 shows fishing vessels setting sail for the Spratly Islands, an archipelago disputed between China and other countries including Vietnam and the Philippines, from Danzhou, south China's Hainan province. China has sent one of its largest recorded fishing fleets to disputed islands in the South China Sea, state-run media said on May 7, amid tensions over Beijing's assertion of its claims in the region. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Vietnamese Community wears a sign during a protest in front of the White House July 25, 2013 during the visit of Vietnamese President President Truong Tan Sang as he met with US President Barack Obama. The man was later arrested as he crossed a police line demanding that the White House recognize that the Paracel and Spratly Islands belong to Vietnam. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
SOUTHWEST CAY, SPRATLY ISLANDS - FEBRUARY 27, 2013: Southwest Cay (also known as Pugad Island), is a small island controlled by Vietnam, is part of the Spratly Island chain in the hotly contested South China Sea. Southwest Cay was originally occupied by the Philippines—the country that occupies the majority of the Spratly Islands—but was taken by South Vietnam in the 1970s. Vietnam has since built a fortified inlet, an army garrison and a number of support buildings on the island, as seen on this image from February 27, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
This picture taken on May 6, 2013 shows staff standing on a fishing vessel setting sail for the Spratly Islands, an archipelago disputed between China and other countries including Vietnam and the Philippines, from Danzhou, south China's Hainan province. China has sent one of its largest recorded fishing fleets to disputed islands in the South China Sea, state-run media said on May 7, amid tensions over Beijing's assertion of its claims in the region. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-China activist and former Philippine policeman Abner Afuang (R) burns a Chinese flag during a protest in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs building in Manila on July 27, 2012, amidst the heightening tension between the Philippines and China over the disputed Spratly islands. Tensions over competing claims in the South China Sea could escalate into conflict, with an arms build-up among rival nations raising the temperature, an international think tank warned on July 24. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/GettyImages)
Hong Kong fishing vessel “Kai Fung No.2” leaves Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2013. The boat with anti-Japan activists on board, sailed off on Wednesday to the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China and other Southeast Asian countries, before reaching their goal, the Diaoyu Islands which are claimed by both China and Japan. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
FILE - This July 20, 2011 file photo, captured through the window of a closed aircraft, shows an aerial view of Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. China's ambiguous territorial claims have brought it into a tense, 14-day high seas standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, another disputed territory among numerous islands, reefs and coral outcrops in the South China Sea, with rich fishing grounds and other resources. The impasse has reignited concerns about potential conflict in the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest seas lanes and home to a myriad of competing territorial claims, most notably the Spratly Islands, which are south of the shoal. (AP Photo/Rolex Dela Pena, Pool, File)
Taiwan holds biggest Spratly islands drill in 15 years (inc before & after satellite imagery) http://t.co/TiVmiCNJ2i http://t.co/vDY58OTv2A
FILE - In this June 12, 2011 file photo, Vietnamese protesters carry a banner with a Vietnamese slogan reading, "China must respect and execute the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," during a protest demanding China to stay out of their waters following China's increased activities around the Spratly Islands and other disputed areas, in Hanoi, Vietnam. Vietnam demanded China stop oil drilling operations in a disputed patch of the South China Sea, saying on Monday, May 5, 2014 that Beijing's decision to deploy a deep sea rig over the weekend was illegal. China dismissed the objections, saying the activity was being carried out in its territorial waters. (AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen, File)
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By Nguyen Phuong Linh and Michael Martina

(Reuters) - Vietnam said on Wednesday a Chinese vessel intentionally rammed two of its ships in a part of the disputed South China Sea where Beijing has deployed a giant oil rig, sending tensions spiraling in the region.

The foreign ministry in Hanoi said the collisions took place on Sunday and caused considerable damage to the Vietnamese ships. Six people sustained minor injuries, it said.

Tensions Rise in South China Sea as Ships Collide

"On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels," said Tran Duy Hai, a foreign ministry official and deputy head of Vietnam's national border committee.

"Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels. Water cannon was used," he told a news conference in Hanoi. Six other ships were also hit, other officials said, but not as badly.

Dozens of navy and coastguard vessels from both countries are in the area where China has deployed the giant rig, Vietnamese officials have said.

"No shots have been fired yet," said a Vietnamese navy official, who could not be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media. "Vietnam won't fire unless China fires first."

The tensions between the two Communist nations come as both are trying to put aside border disputes and the memories of a brief but bloody border war in 1979. Vietnam is usually careful about public comments against China, with which it had bilateral trade surpassing $50 billion in 2013.

However, Hanoi has strongly condemned the operation of the drilling rig in what it says are its waters in the South China Sea, and told China's state-run oil company CNOOC to remove it.

The United States has also criticized the move.

The row comes days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Asia to underline his commitment to allies there, including Japan and the Philippines, both locked in territorial disputes with China.

Obama, promoting a strategic "pivot" toward the Asia-Pacific region, also visited South Korea and Malaysia, but not China.

China has not yet responded to the Vietnamese allegations of ramming, but Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said earlier on Wednesday that the deployment of the rig had nothing to do with the United States, or Vietnam.

"The United States has no right to complain about China's activities within the scope of its own sovereignty," she said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

TENSIONS WITH PHILIPPINES

Tensions are also brewing in another part of the South China Sea where Beijing has demanded the Philippines release a Chinese fishing boat and its crew seized on Tuesday.

Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group said a maritime police patrol apprehended a Chinese fishing boat around 7 a.m. on Tuesday off Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands.

The boat has 11 crew and police found about 350 turtles in the vessel, some of which were already dead, a police report said, adding that a Philippine boat with crew was also seized, and found to have 70 turtles on board. Several species of sea turtles are protected under Philippine law.

Maritime police are now towing the boats to Puerto Princesa town on the island of Palawan where appropriate charges will be filed against them, Vargas said.

China said the Philippines had to release the boat and the fishermen.

"China's Foreign Ministry and China's ambassador to the Philippines have made representations to the Philippines side, demanding that it provide a rational explanation and immediately release the people and the vessel", ministry spokeswoman Hua said.

"We once again warn the Philippines not to take any provocative actions," she said, adding that China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly Islands.

There are frequent tensions in the South China Sea between China and the other claimant nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which say Beijing has harassed their ships in the waters there.

While there are frequent stand-offs between fishermen and the various claimant states in the South China Sea, the actual detention of Chinese fishermen or the seizure of a boat is rare.

NOT COMMERCIALLY DRIVEN

An oil industry official in China said the deployment of the rig owned by China's CNOOC oil company to waters near Vietnam appeared to be a political decision rather than a commercial one.

"This reflected the will of the central government and is also related to the U.S. strategy on Asia," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"It is not commercially driven. It is also not like CNOOC has set a big exploration blueprint for the region."

However, Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a government think-tank in the southern province of Hainan, said China was unlikely to pay much heed to Vietnamese concerns.

"If we stop our work there as soon as Vietnam shouts, China will not be able to achieve anything in the South China Sea," Wu said.

"We have lost a precious opportunity to drill for oil and gas in the Spratlys. Also this time we are drilling in Xisha (Paracel Islands), not Nansha (Spratlys), there is no territorial dispute there. I think China will keep moving ahead with its plan (in Xisha), no matter what Vietnam says and does."

Tran Duy Hai, the Vietnamese foreign ministry official, raised the possibility of Hanoi taking the dispute to international arbitration.

"We cannot exclude any measures, including international legal action, as long as it is peaceful.

"We are a peace-loving nation that has experienced many wars," he said. "If this situation goes too far, we will use all measures in line with international law to protect our territory. We have limitations, but we will stand up to any Chinese aggression."

The Philippines has already taken its dispute with China to an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Manuel Mogato in Manila and Charlie Zhu in Hong Kong; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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