Tension flared Wednesday between China and two of its neighbors in the waters of the disputed South China Sea.
In the eastern part of the sea, China demanded that the Philippines release a Chinese fishing boat and its crew that it seized on Tuesday off the Spratly Islands.
Further west, dozens of patrol boats and naval and coast guard vessels from China and Vietnam gathered around the site of a Chinese oil rig that was moved this weekend into waters that Hanoi claims as its territory, Reuters reports.
Both incidents underscore the fragility in the region as China asserts its claims to wide swaths of the South China Sea, while its smaller neighbors, who also claim islands in the same waters, push back.
Although there are frequent flare-ups between fishermen from the region's littoral countries, the “actual detention of Chinese fishermen or the seizure of a boat is rare,” writes Reuters.
The Chinese fishing boat and its 11-person crew was seized at 7 a.m. Tuesday by a maritime police patrol, according to Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas of the Philippine National Police Maritime Group.
The Philippines is a US military ally: When President Obama visited last week, the two countries agreed to boost their military cooperation going forward, a move widely seen as a response to China's growing assertiveness.
The boat was carrying about 350 turtles, some of which are protected under Philippine law, and was seized at the same time as a Philippine boat and crew with 70 turtles on board, Mr. Vargas said. Both boats are being taken to the Philippine island of Palawan, where charges will be filed against them.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the Philippines must “immediately” release the detained fisherman and “take no more provocative action,” according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Xinhua described the seizure of the ship as one where “several armed men forced themselves onto the boat and fired four or five shots in the air.”
In Vietnam, boats from the two neighboring powers faced off near the site of a Chinese oil rig Wednesday, as Hanoi attempted to prevent China from placing its rig in an area of water claimed by both countries, the Associated Press reports.
No shots have been fired, a Vietnamese government official told the AP. Two foreign diplomats, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Vietnam had sent up to 29 armed naval and coast guard boats to the area as a “show of force” to urge Beijing to withdraw the rig.
Beijing moved the deep-sea oil rig, owned by China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), a state-owned company, to a location close to the Paracel Islands on May 2. The oil rig was escorted by a “large flotilla of naval vessels,” according to the AP; Beijing “announced that no foreign ships would be allowed within a 3-mile radius of the $1 billion rig.”
The oil rig’s location is 120 nautical miles off of Vietnam’s coast and within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone that Vietnam claims under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“Vietnam will take all the proper and necessary measure to protect its legitimate rights and interests,” Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said Wednesday, according to the Vietnam's Than Nien newspaper. Vietnam calls the Chinese move illegal and a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty. It has sought diplomatic talks with China to resolve the situation.
An unnamed Chinese oil industry official told Reuters that the decision to move the rig looked like a political rather than a commercial decision:
"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."
The US State Department weighed in on the tensions on Tuesday. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki called China’s “decision to operate its oil rig in disputed waters [...] provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region.”
Vietnam and China have clashed seriously in the South China Sea at least three other times in the past 40 years, AP notes:
China occupied the Paracel Islands 40 years ago, and 74 U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces died in a subsequent military clash. The Vietnamese and Chinese navies clashed again in 1988 in the disputed Spratly Islands, leaving 64 Vietnamese sailors dead.
In 1992, China awarded a contract to U.S. energy company Crestone to explore for oil and gas in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam protested the move. Two years later, Vietnam’s navy forced the company’s oil rigs to leave the area
And the Philippines in particular has taken a strong stand against Chinese territorial claims. In March, Manila lodged a legal case with the United Nations that challenges Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, as The Christian Science Monitor reported:
Beijing immediately dismissed the move, saying it would refuse to take part in any arbitration by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Manila’s decision to lodge nearly 4,000 pages of legal testimony with the tribunal in Hamburg “is about defending what is legitimately ours,” Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila on Sunday.
The Philippines has been the most outspoken of the Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims with China in the South China Sea. Beijing lays claim to more than 80 percent of the sea, thought to be rich in oil and gas, within nine dotted lines shown on a Chinese map drawn up in the 1940s.
Within that tongue-shaped area lie reefs and shoals more than 1,000 miles from China’s shoreline.