Vietnam on Thursday reiterated that all sovereign states have the rights to carry out lawful activities in the South China Sea, which it calls the East Sea, after U.S. warships sailed near islands in the disputed waters last Sunday.

"Vietnam respects nations' rights to freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea in accordance with international laws, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," foreign ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said in a statement.

The statement came after two U.S. Navy warships, the destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam, last Sunday carried out a freedom of navigation operation. During the operation, the two warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of Tree, Lincoln, Triton and Woody (Phu Lam) islands in the Paracel (Hoang Sa) Islands, which belong to Vietnam but are illegally occupied by China.

"Vietnam requests that nations contribute practically and responsibly to the maintenance of order, peace and the rule of law in the East Sea," Hang added.

The spokeswoman on Thursday also denounced all activities carried out in the Paracel and Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands without Vietnam's consent as illegal and a serious violation of Vietnam's sovereignty. The statement came after the Philippines earlier this month started work on repairing a runway on a Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys.

Vietnam's consistent stance is that all disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved by peaceful means in accordance with international laws, according to Hang. Therefore, until a peaceful solution is found, Vietnam calls for all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from taking actions that would complicate the situation or expand disputes, violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Hang stressed that Vietnam has full legal basis and historical evidence to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in accordance with international laws.

China seized the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam by force in 1974, and has been illegally occupying a number of reefs in the Spratly Islands since 1988. A number of islands in the Spratlys are meanwhile occupied by the Philippines.

The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies last week also discovered that the Philippines had started repairing a runway built in the 1970s on Thitu Island, the largest Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys.

By Khanh Lynh - - June 1, 2018