In response to journalists' questions about the reported standoff, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said Vietnamese forces were lawfully "safeguarding Vietnamese waters".

Reports in recent days have suggested a large-scale standoff between several coastguard ships from each country as a Chinese oil exploration ship entered contested waters near the Spratly Islands.

Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper reported on July 12 that six "heavily armed" coastguard vessels, two from China and four from Vietnam, had been eyeing each other since the beginning of the month.

Publicly available shipping data confirms the presence of the Haiyang Dizhi Chinese oil exploration ship in the disputed waters, near where the Russian oil company Rosneft began drilling on May 12 in a joint venture with Vietnam.

Oil exploration in the South China Sea is a highly fraught issue in both countries, which fought a series of violent disputes between 1974 and 1988 over control of the Spratly and Parcel Islands.

In 2014, deadly riots broke out throughout Vietnam after a Chinese drilling rig entered the disputed waters, while Vietnam's unexplained decision to suddenly cancel a drilling contract with Repsol in 2017 occurred during heightened tensions with China.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including waters within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone.

Deutsche Press Agentur - July 16, 2019