* China disputes Vietnam's account of incident last week
* China repeats warning against "unilateral" oil and gas
* South China Sea is one of Asia's most sensitive military
By Michael Martina
BEIJING, Dec 6 (Reuters) - China told Vietnam on Thursday to
stop unilateral oil exploration in disputed areas of the South
China Sea and not harass Chinese fishing boats, raising tensions
in a protracted maritime territorial dispute with its neighbour.
Vietnam had already expelled Chinese fishing vessels from
waters near China's southern Hainan province, Chinese Foreign
Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.
Hong's description of the confrontation last Friday was in
contrast to the account by Vietnam, which said a Vietnamese ship
had a seismic cable it was pulling cut by two Chinese fishing
"Vietnam's statement is inconsistent with the facts," Hong
China is in increasingly angry disputes with neighbours
including the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia
over claims to parts of the potentially oil and gas-rich South
China Sea. China, which lays claim to almost the whole of the
sea, criss-crossed by crucial shipping lanes, also has a
separate dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.
The Chinese fishing boats were in an area where Vietnam's
claim overlaps with waters of Hainan province, Hong said.
New Chinese regulations allow police to board vessels deemed
to be intruding in waters off the island of Hainan, though
details about how this could happen have not been made clear.
"The relevant fishing vessels were in these waters
conducting regular fishing activities and they were unreasonably
expelled by Vietnamese military vessels," Hong said.
He added that China and Vietnam were currently in
negotiations over the waters.
"We hope the Vietnam side will not engage in unilateral oil
and gas exploration activities in the relevant waters, cease
interfering with Chinese fishing vessels' normal operations, and
create a friendly atmosphere for bilateral negotiations", Hong
China has made similar warnings in the past about not
exploring for oil and gas in waters it considers its own.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was aware
of the incident between the Chinese and Vietnamese vessels and
said it had expressed concerns to Beijing over the new
"We call on the Chinese government to clarify the revised
regulations and ensure their implementation is consistent with
international law," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said
in an emailed statement.
"All concerned parties should avoid any unilateral actions
that raise tensions and undermine the prospects for a diplomatic
or other peaceful resolution of differences," he said.
India, which jointly conducts some oil exploration with
Vietnam, said this week that it was prepared to send navy ships
into the region to safeguard its interests.
Energy-hungry China is also actively exploring the resources
of the South China Sea. It aims to produce 15 billion cubic
metres of natural gas a year from the South China Sea by 2015,
the energy administration said on Monday, raising the
possibility of disputes escalating.
State-run CNOOC, China's top offshore oil producer, in late
June invited foreign companies to jointly develop nine blocks in
the western part of the South China Sea, a move Vietnam said was
illegal because the blocks overlap its territorial waters.
The South China Sea is one of Asia's most sensitive military
hotspots whose profile has been raised by a newly assertive
The mounting disputes come at a time when China is flexing
increasing naval might, including the launch of its first
aircraft carrier in September and the test flights of its first
two models of a stealth jet fighter, one of which is believed to
be designed to land on aircraft carriers.