NAYPYITAW/BEIJING - Tensions in a disputed part of the South China Sea remained high on Thursday, a Vietnamese coast guard official said, after a series of collisions this month between its and Chinese vessels, while Japan and the United States are urging Beijing to exercise restraint and avoid worsening the most serious situation in the area in years.
"The overall situation is the same as what happened on Wednesday," Rear Adm. Ngo Ngoc Thu, vice commander of the Vietnam Coast Guard, told Kyodo News.
Ngo declined to state whether or not clashes had also occurred on Thursday, but said there was no change in the dangerous situation of many vessels from both countries being deployed.
Vietnam on Wednesday said Chinese ships intentionally rammed its vessels in waters around where Beijing was trying to set up an oil rig.
China moved the giant deep-sea oil rig to an area close to the Paracel Islands last week, accompanied by a large number of naval vessels and Chinese aircraft regularly fly over the area, Vietnam said.
Vietnam claimed there were as many as 80 Chinese vessels, including seven military ships, deployed to guard the rig.
Video was shown at the press conference of Chinese ships ramming into Vietnamese vessels and firing high-powered water cannons at them.
In Beijing, China specially arranged a press conference at the Foreign Ministry to refute the Vietnamese claims.
Yi Xianliang, deputy director general of the department of ocean affairs at the ministry, repeatedly said that Vietnam started taking "provocative" and "disruptive" actions around the waters and first rammed its vessels into Chinese ones.
Without providing any concrete evidence, such as video footage, Yi argued that Vietnam dispatched 35 vessels of "various kinds" to the scene between Saturday and Wednesday, and they rammed "intentionally" into Chinese ships "as many as 171 times" during the period.
He said China is ready to engage in consultations with Vietnam, but to do that Vietnam must first withdraw its vessels from the area.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping told reporters earlier in the day in Beijing that he is confident that China and Vietnam can settle their disputes peacefully.
While stating that China's stance is firm on defending sovereignty and integrity of its territories, Cheng said launching cooperation and development between the two countries "remains the main theme."
"China and Vietnam can still resolve issues of disputes through friendly, peaceful negotiations. Because this is caused due to controversies in history, having disputes over it is also an objective reality," he said.
Many countries, including Japan and the United States, are strongly concerned about the escalation of tensions in the region and China's growing assertiveness.
"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," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday in a statement.
"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," she said.
In Tokyo, the Japanese government's top spokesman also expressed grave concern over the ongoing confrontation in the South China Sea.
Speaking at a regular press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the dangerous situation is due to "China's unilateral exploration" in the disputed part of the sea.
"We urge (China) to refrain from taking unilateral actions that would escalate the tensions, and exercise restraint in accordance with international law," Suga said.
China, which has been locked in a fierce dispute over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea with Japan, in return, criticized Suga's comments.
Yi said Suga's remarks were "irresponsible" and made "regardless of facts."