Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels from waters near China's southern Hainan province, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.

Hong's description of the confrontation last Friday was in contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing ships.

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

China is in increasingly angry disputes with neighbours including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea. China, which lays claim to almost the whole of the sea, criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes, also has a separate dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.

The Chinese fishing boats were in an area where Vietnam's claim overlaps with waters of Hainan province, Hong said.

New Chinese regulations allow police to board vessels deemed to be intruding in waters off the island of Hainan, though details about how this could happen have not been made clear.

"The relevant fishing vessels were in these waters conducting regular fishing activities and they were unreasonably expelled by Vietnamese military vessels," Hong said.

He added that China and Vietnam were currently in negotiations over the waters.

"We hope the Vietnam side will not engage in unilateral oil and gas exploration activities in the relevant waters, cease interfering with Chinese fishing vessels' normal operations, and create a friendly atmosphere for bilateral negotiations", Hong said.

China has made similar warnings in the past about not exploring for oil and gas in waters it considers its own.

In Washington, the US State Department said it was aware of the incident between the Chinese and Vietnamese vessels and said it had expressed concerns to Beijing over the new regulations.

"We call on the Chinese government to clarify the revised regulations and ensure their implementation is consistent with international law," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an emailed statement.

"All concerned parties should avoid any unilateral actions that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic or other peaceful resolution of differences," he said.

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

Energy-hungry China is also actively exploring the resources of the South China Sea. It aims to produce 15 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from the South China Sea by 2015, the energy administration said on Monday, raising the possibility of disputes escalating.

State-run CNOOC, China's top offshore oil producer, in late June invited foreign companies to jointly develop nine blocks in the western part of the South China Sea, a move Vietnam said was illegal because the blocks overlap its territorial waters.

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

The mounting disputes come at a time when China is flexing increasing naval might, including the launch of its first aircraft carrier in September and the test flights of its first two models of a stealth jet fighter, one of which is believed to be designed to land on aircraft carriers.

Reuters - December 7, 2012

India and Vietnam face off with China in disputed waters

BEIJING: China and two of its neighbours, Vietnam and India, are locked in a new dispute over energy exploration in the South China Sea, as China continues its aggressive attitude towards the 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 designed to restrict Vietnam's pursuit of energy deposits.

In retaliation, Vietnam said on Tuesday that it would launch new patrols 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, PetroVietnam, said it would consider sending navy vessels to protect its interests in the sea. Advertisement

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 sea, which includes vital shipping lanes through which more than a third of global trade moves.

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

Earlier this year, China's third-largest energy company, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation, launched new equipment that would allow China to drill in deep water for the first time.

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 policymakers clustered in the Maritime Rights Office, according to Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, and other Chinese experts.

A website run by PetroVietnam reported the company's exploration vessel Binh Minh 02 had its seismic cable severed by a Chinese fishing vessel last Friday. In May last year, 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 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.

India also reacted strongly. The head of the Indian navy, Admiral D.K. Joshi, said India was prepared to send 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 said.

The Associated Press - December 6, 2012