Beijing’s statements follow Vietnam live-fire drills in the South China Sea on Monday, deemed “routine” by Hanoi but slammed in China, as well as the publication of a decree signed by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung specifying who would be exempt from military call-up in a time of war. Vietnam’s last (victorious) war was in 1979 against China.
"We will not resort to the use of force or the threat of force," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. However, he condemned any action that would exacerbate the dispute, and urged those involved to "do more that is beneficial to regional peace and stability".
"Countries that are not directly involved should respect the efforts of directly related countries to resolve the issue through direct negotiations," Hong added.
The warning appears to be directed at Filipino President Benigno Aquino, who said that his country might benefit from US help in the tense dispute with China. Washington in fact is interested in controlling the area.
Aquino said he would rename the sea West Philippine Sea. For the Filipino president, the US naval presence in the area would guarantee freedom of navigation and security.
For its part, Hanoi is actively promoting a “multilateral” approach to dispute settlement, a position rejected by Beijing, which prefers to negotiate separately with each nation of the region.
Tensions worsened recently of two separate incidents involving Vietnamese and Chinese boats off the Spratly and Parecel Islands.
According to a Chinese scholar, the fact that North Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Van Dong sent a cable to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 that recognised China’s claims to the Xisha (Spratly) and Nansha (Paracel) Islands boost Beijing’s claims.
Among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea, which includes the uninhabited Spratly and Paracel Islands, with rich fishing grounds and important oil and gas reserves.
Beijing’s claims also reflect its strategic goal of hegemonic control over trade and mineral development, above all oil and natural gas.
Chinese demands have not gone unchallenged. Contenders include Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, as well as the United States, which has its own strategic interests in the region.