Dispute Flares Over Energy in South China Sea

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BEIJING -- China and two of its neighbors, Vietnam and India, were locked in a new dispute on Tuesday over energy exploration in the South China Sea, a signal that Beijing plans to continue its hard line in the increasingly contentious waterway.

Vietnam accused a Chinese fishing boat of cutting a seismic cable attached to one of its vessels exploring for oil and gas near the Gulf of Tonkin, an act apparently intended to inhibit Vietnam from pursuing energy deposits.

In retaliation, Vietnam said Tuesday that it would send out new patrols, which would include the marine police, to guard against increasing encroachment by Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea. India, which operates several joint ventures with Vietnam's national energy company, Petro Vietnam, said it would consider sending navy vessels to protect its interests in the South China Sea.

The latest episode follows an announcement by Hainan Province in southern China last week that Chinese vessels would board and search ships in contested areas of the waterway, which includes vital shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade moves.

The new tensions among China, Vietnam and India illustrate in stark terms the competition in the South China Sea for what are believed to be sizable deposits of oil and gas.

Some energy experts in China see the sea as an important new energy frontier close to home that could make China less dependent on its huge oil imports from the Middle East.

On Monday, China's National Energy Administration named the South China Sea as the main offshore site for natural gas production. Within two years, China aims to produce 150 billion cubic meters of natural gas fields in the sea, a significant increase from the 20 billion cubic meters produced so far, the agency said.

Earlier this year, China's third-largest energy company, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, began drilling with a rig in deep water in non-disputed waters off the southern coast of China.

The escalation in the South China Sea comes less than a month after Xi Jinping took office as China's leader. Mr. Xi appears to have taken a particular interest in the South China Sea and the serious dispute between China and Japan over the islands known as Diaoyu in China and as Senkaku in Japan. Whether any of China's most recent actions in the South China Sea were associated with Mr. Xi was not clear.

But Mr. Xi does lead a small group of policy makers clustered in the Maritime Rights Office, which serves to coordinate agencies within China, according to Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, and other Chinese experts. The unit is part of the office of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, Mr. Zhu said. The leading small group, now headed by Mr. Xi, is widely believed to be China's central policy-making group.

China's Foreign Ministry reiterated on Tuesday that China opposed oil and gas development by other countries in disputed waters of the sea. China maintains that it has "undisputed" sovereignty over the South China Sea, and that only China is allowed to develop the energy resources.

"We hope that concerned countries respect China's position and rights," said the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei.

Vietnam, which has long been wary of China but enjoys a relationship through its governing Communist Party, summoned the Chinese ambassador on Monday to protest the cutting of the seismic cable, the Vietnamese press reported.

A Web site run by Petro Vietnam, the oil company, reported that the company's exploration vessel Binh Minh 02 had its seismic cable severed by a Chinese fishing vessel last Friday. In May 2011, the Vietnamese authorities said a similar cable of the Binh Minh 02 was cut by three Chinese surveillance ships, resulting in weeks of anti-China protests in Hanoi.

In its decree on the new patrols, Vietnam said that civilian ships, supported by marine police and a border force, would be deployed starting next month to stop foreign vessels that violate fishing laws in waters claimed by Vietnam.

A senior official of Petro Vietnam, Pham Viet Dung, was quoted in the Vietnamese news media as saying that large numbers of Chinese fishing boats, many of them substantial vessels, had recently entered waters claimed by Vietnam. The fishing vessels interfered with the operations of the oil company, he said.

India, whose state-run oil company, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, has a 45 percent interest in exploration with Petro Vietnam, also reacted strongly.

The head of the Indian Navy, Admiral D.K. Joshi, said that India was prepared to send navy vessels to protect its interests in the sea. "Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is 'yes,' " Admiral Joshi told reporters in India.

The most recent moves by China in the South China Sea have not won total support at home. Mr. Zhu, the professor, said he did not believe that China had become more assertive in the South China Sea.

But, he said, "The cable cutting is really unfriendly."

Bree Feng contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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