China has started fresh confrontations with its smaller neighbours, escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Vietnamese vessels on Wednesday confronted Chinese ships that were working to place an oil rig off Vietnam's coast.
Vietnamese officials said their ships had been rammed by the Chinese vessels three days earlier. Vietnam also the Chinese ships fired water cannons at its flotilla in the encounter on Sunday, injuring sailors.
''On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels,'' Tran Duy Hai, a foreign ministry official, said at a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam. ''Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels.''
Although Chinese officials did not confirm the incident, the skirmishes highlighted China's more aggressive posture in pursuing maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Last week, China's state-run oil company CNOOC stationed the oil rig 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, in waters claimed by Vietnam as well. Vietnam protested and demanded that rig be withdrawn. It also deployed a naval flotilla in the area.
China claims the rig is operating within Chinese waters, but Vietnam's foreign ministry has clearly told Chinese diplomats that it would take ''all suitable and necessary measures'' to protect its rights and interests.
In another incident, the authorities in the Philippines detained crew members of a Chinese fishing vessel in a disputed area of the South China Sea, accusing them of poaching endangered sea turtles.
A spokesman of the Maritime Group of the Philippine National Police, said on Wednesday that the fishermen and several hundred sea turtles were seized on Tuesday by a Philippine National Police patrol boat during the operation, near Half Moon Shoal.
China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had called upon the Philippines to ''immediately'' release the fishermen, to ''make rational explanations'' of its actions and to ''take no more provocative action,'' the Xinhua state news agency reported.
The incident is the latest chapter in territorial disputes that pits powerful China against Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Taiwan.
China claims expansive areas of the sea, encompassed in a ''nine-dash line'' map that critics have said has no basis in international law.
''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. 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,'' US state department spokesman Jen Psaki said in Washington.
The United States is concerned about ''dangerous conduct and intimidation'' in the region. ''Given the recent history of tensions in the South China Sea, China's unilateral decision to introduce its oil rig into these disputed waters is provocative and unhelpful,'' she said at a daily press briefing on Wednesday.
''Sovereignty over the Paracel Islands is disputed; this incident is occurring in waters claimed by Vietnam and China near those islands. These events highlight the need for claimants to clarify their claims in accordance with international law, and to reach agreement on appropriate behavior and activities in disputed areas,'' the statement added.