HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — 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.
Several boats have been damaged and at least six Vietnamese on board them have been injured, officials said. The United States said it was concerned and accused China of ramping up tensions in the area.
"China's decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time in waters disputed with Vietnam is provocative and raises tensions," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. "This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region."
Elsewhere in the sea, the Philippines arrested 11 Chinese fishermen for catching endangering turtles, angering Beijing and further exposing regional strains.
China recently has been harassing Vietnam and Philippine vessels and fishermen in the potentially oil- and gas-rich waters it claims almost entirety — a shaky stance to many international law experts.
But China's deployment of the oil rig on May 1 and the flotilla of escort ships, some armed, is seen as one of its most provocative steps in a gradual campaign of asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea. With neither country showing any sign of stepping down, the standoff raises the possibility of more serious clashes.
Hanoi, which has no hope of competing with China militarily, said it wants a peaceful solution and — unlike China — hadn't sent any navy ships to areas close to the $1 billion deep sea rig near the Paracel Islands. But a top official warned that "all restraint had a limit."
"Our maritime police and fishing protection forces have practiced extreme restraint, we will continue to hold on there," Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of Vietnam's coast guard, told a specially arranged news conference in Hanoi. "But if (the Chinese ships) continue to ram into us, we will respond with similar self-defense."
After China stationed the oil rig, Vietnam immediately dispatched marine police and fishery protection vessels but they were harassed as they approached, Thu said.
Video was shown at the news conference of Chinese ships ramming into Vietnamese vessels and firing high-powered water cannons at them. Thu said the Chinese vessels have done so "dozens" of times over the last three days. He said Vietnam had not carried out any offensive actions of its own close to the rig, about 220 kilometers (140 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing that the oil rig was in China's territorial waters and therefore drilling is "normal and legal." The country previously said foreign ships would be banned within a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) radius of the rig.