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China Ups the Ante in South China Sea Dispute

oil drilling in the south China Seas
Jin Liangkuai | AP

China told Vietnam on Thursday tostop unilateral oil exploration in disputed areas of the SouthChina Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, raising tensionin protracted maritime territorial disputes with its neighbors.

Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels fromwaters near China's southern Hainan province, Chinese ForeignMinistry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters.

Hong's description of the confrontation last Friday was incontrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese shiphad a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishingships.

"Vietnam's statement is inconsistent with the facts," Hongsaid.

China is in an increasingly angry dispute with neighboursincluding the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysiaover claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich SouthChina Sea. China lays claim to almost the whole of the sea,which is criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes.

The Chinese fishing boats were in an area where Vietnam'sclaim overlaps with waters of Hainan province, Hong said. NewChinese regulations allow police to board vessels deemed to beintruding in waters off the island of Hainan.

"The relevant fishing vessels were in these watersconducting regular fishing activities and they were unreasonablyexpelled by Vietnamese military vessels," Hong said.

The South China Sea is one of Asia's most sensitive militaryhotspots whose profile has been raised by a newly assertiveChina.

China has become more outspoken in its claims over islandsin the South and East China Seas. The mounting disputes come ata time when China is flexing increasing naval might, includingthe launch of its first aircraft carrier in September and thetest flights of its first two models of a stealth jet fighter,one of which is believed to be designed to land on aircraftcarriers.

India, which jointly conducts some oil exploration withVietnam, said this week that it was prepared to send navy shipsinto the region to safeguard its interests.

Hong said China and Vietnam were currently in negotiationsover the waters.

"We hope the Vietnam side will not engage in unilateral oiland gas exploration activities in the relevant waters, ceaseinterfering with Chinese fishing vessels' normal operations, andcreate a friendly atmosphere for bilateral negotiations", hesaid.