Chinese ships trying to deploy an oil rig in disputed waters of the South China Sea have reportedly rammed Vietnamese vessels in recent days, as the Philippines says it's seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew of 11 for poaching endangered sea turtles.
"On May 4, Chinese ships intentionally rammed two Vietnamese Sea Guard vessels," Tran Duy Hai, a Foreign Ministry official, told a news conference in Hanoi. "Chinese ships, with air support, sought to intimidate Vietnamese vessels. Water cannon was used," he said.
Hanoi says at least six members of the Vietnamese crew were injured in the confrontation.
The incidents are the latest provocations resulting from a web of competing claims in the region, where China has increasingly sought to assert its claims of sovereignty at the expense of its smaller maritime neighbors.
The Associated Press says, "China's deployment of the oil rig on May 1 and the flotilla of escort ships, some armed, is seen as one of its most provocative steps in a gradual campaign of asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea."
The rig is situated near the Paracel Islands, long a source of tension between China and Vietnam. In March, Hanoi accused Beijing of firing on a Vietnamese vessel engaged in fishing near the islands.
The latest confrontation, according to The New York Times, "occurred just days after the Chinese state oil company Cnooc stationed the oil rig 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam, in waters claimed by China and Vietnam. The placement of the rig led to protests and demands by Vietnam that it be withdrawn, and the deployment of a Vietnamese naval flotilla to the area."
"China's state councilor, Yang Jiechi, rebutted the criticisms in a telephone call on Tuesday with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh of Vietnam. Mr. Yang said the rig was operating within Chinese waters, but Mr. Minh told the Chinese diplomat during the call that Vietnam would 'take all suitable and necessary measures' to protect its rights and interests, according to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to comment directly on whether Chinese vessels had rammed Vietnamese vessels, but she called the deployment of the oil rig "provocative" and said the Obama administration is "strongly concerned about the dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels in the disputed area."
Meanwhile, the Philippines said Wednesday a Chinese fishing boat operating in disputed waters had been taken into custody along with its 11-man crew for illegal poaching of endangered turtles.
The AP says: "The boat was loaded with more than 350 endangered turtles that were confiscated when it was seized near territory known as Half Moon Shoal, Philippine maritime police Chief Superintendent Noel Vargas said."
Vargas said Manila was trying "to enforce maritime laws and to uphold Philippine sovereign rights" over its exclusive economic zone, the AP said.
China's Foreign Ministry has demanded the release of the boat and crew. Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged Manila to "stop taking further provocative actions."