HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Chinese ships are ramming and spraying water cannons at Vietnamese vessels trying to stop Beijing from setting up an oil rig in the South China Sea, according to Vietnamese officials and video evidence Wednesday, a dangerous escalation of tensions in disputed waters considered a global flashpoint.
With neither side showing any sign of stepping down, the standoff raises the possibility that more serious clashes could break out. Vietnam said several boats have been damaged and six people on the vessels have been injured by broken glass.
Vietnam, which has no hope of standing up to 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. 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."
China's stationing of the oil rig, which was accompanied by a flotilla of military and civilian ships, on May 1 has been seen as one of its most provocative steps in a gradual campaign of asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
Vietnam immediately dispatched marine police and fishery protection vessels to the area, but they were harassed as they approached, Thu said.
Video was shown at the news conference of Chinese ships ramming into Vietnamese ones and firing high-powered water cannons at them. Thu said such incidents had occurred repeatedly over the last three days. He said Vietnam had not carried out any offensive actions of its own in waters close to the rig, around 220 kilometers (140 miles) off the Vietnamese coast.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing Wednesday that the oil rig was in China's territorial waters and therefore drilling is "normal and legal." The country previously announced that no foreign ships would be allowed within a 3-mile (4.8-kilometer) radius of the rig.
"The disruptive activities by the Vietnamese side are in violation of China's sovereign rights," she said.
A Vietnamese official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity said earlier that Vietnam's ships were outnumbered by the Chinese flotilla escorting the rig. He said the ships were trying to stop the rig from "establishing a fixed position" at the spot where it wanted to drill.
China's assertiveness along with its growing military and economic might is alarming many smaller countries in the region even as they are aware they need to keep relations open with a vital trading partner. The United States, which is undertaking a military and economic "pivot" toward Asia in part to counter Chinese influence, shares the concerns of the smaller nations.
In a strongly worded statement in Washington on Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called China's action "provocative and unhelpful to the maintenance of peace and stability in the region."
Asked about the U.S. statement, Hua said, "we want to tell the U.S. that the U.S. has no right to make irresponsible and unwarranted remarks on China's sovereign rights."
Vietnam has limited leverage in dealing with its giant neighbor and vital economic partner. It can't afford damaged ties with Beijing. While it is no longer as isolated as it once was, the country can't expect much diplomatic help from powerful friends. It appears likely to try to rally regional support against China's actions.
"China seems intent on putting down its footprint squarely in contested waters and force Hanoi's hand. It appears a critical juncture has occurred and one would expect Hanoi to be weighing its options," said Jonathan London, a Vietnam expert at the City University of Hong Kong. "Hanoi's back is against the wall, though China's policies — which according to virtually everyone except China are baseless legally — have brought about this situation."
China occupied the Paracel Islands 40 years ago, and 74 U.S.-backed South Vietnamese forces died in a subsequent military clash. The Vietnamese and Chinese navies clashed again in 1988 in the disputed Spratly Islands, leaving 64 Vietnamese sailors dead.
In 1992, China awarded a contract to U.S. energy company Crestone to explore for oil and gas in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam protested the move. Two years later, Vietnam's navy forced the company's oil rigs to leave the area.
Associated Press writer Louise Watt in Beijing contributed to this report.