BEIJING/MANILA – China has accused Vietnam of ramming its ships more than 1,000 times in a disputed part of the South China Sea and said while it wants good relations with its southern neighbor, it would not abandon principles to achieve that.
The accusation came after Vietnamese and Philippine troops got together Sunday on a Vietnamese-held island in the disputed Spratlys to play soccer and volleyball, as well as drink beer, in a display of unity that did not go unnoticed in Beijing.
Philippine naval officials billed the event on the Vietnamese-held island as a chance to show the world there can be harmony in the South China Sea despite a web of overlapping claims to the potentially energy-rich waters. The gathering on Southwest Cay in the Spratly archipelago also symbolizes how once-suspicious neighbors are cooperating in the face of China’s growing assertiveness in disputed waters.
About 40 Philippine naval personnel sailed to the island for the daylong event, Philippine naval officials said.
On Monday, China denounced the get together, calling it “a clumsy farce.”
Diplomats and experts have described the nascent partnership between Hanoi and Manila as part of a web of evolving relationships across Asia that are being driven by fear of China as well as doubts among some, especially in Japan, over the U.S. commitment to the region. They said there are increasing levels of trust at a working level, as China’s projection of naval power into Asia’s waters drives them together.
China claims most of the South China Sea and has over the past couple of years been taking various steps to assert its claim, raising tensions — in particular with Vietnam and the Philippines.
A Vietnamese fishing boat sank on May 26 during a confrontation not far from where China has towed an oil rig, accompanied by a cordon of Chinese vessels, 240 km (150 miles) off Vietnam.
Shortly after China brought its oil rig into the area, Vietnam sent a large number of vessels, frogmen, and dropped numerous obstacles, including fishing nets, into the sea, China’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday.
“As of 5 p.m. on 7 June, there were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area at the peak, attempting to break through China’s cordon and ramming the Chinese government ships for a total of 1,416 times,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The two sides are testing each other’s resolve to see who will blink first,” said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. “China is in a position to show it has more resolve than Vietnam. This is part of China’s overall strategy of turning the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. Once China can control the South China Sea, it can dominate the maritime areas of the western Pacific.”