BEIJING - A senior Chinese military officer urged Vietnam to cool public ire and avoid escalating tension between the two communist neighbors, an official Chinese newspaper reported on Thursday, following weeks of friction over the South China Sea.
The comments, part warning and part bridge-building, came from Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army General Staff, in a meeting with officers from Vietnam's National Defense University, the Liberation Army Daily reported.
Ma did not directly raise a recent South China Sea flare-up in his published remarks, but that was clearly his focus.
Ma said he "hoped that the Vietnamese side will appropriately handle sensitive issues and correctly guide public opinion and popular sentiment", the Chinese paper reported.
"Stop allowing developments to escalate and fester, and avoid complicating problems so they expand and become multilateral and internationalized," the paper paraphrased Ma as telling the Vietnamese visitors.
Relations between China and Vietnam have been strained over the past month because of a flare-up in a long-standing dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea, where they and other governments stake rival claims over small islands.
Vietnam allowed demonstrations over the dispute outside China's embassy in Hanoi, in a rare officially sanctioned venting of public ire against China, which is both a powerful neighbor and long-time rival. They briefly went to war in 1979.
China and Vietnam have traded accusations over what each calls intrusions into its waters in a sea spanned by major shipping lanes and thought to hold deposits of oil and gas.
Such accusations are not uncommon between China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, which are also involved in long-standing maritime disputes.
The latest tension flared last month when Hanoi said Chinese boats had harassed a Vietnamese oil exploration ship. Beijing said Vietnamese oil and gas exploration undermined its rights in the South China Sea.
The two sides each conducted naval exercises in a show of force but analysts say neither has an interest in pushing the dispute to the point where military conflict is a serious risk. In past days, they have been seeking to cool the tension.
On Sunday, China and Vietnam pledged to solve the dispute through peaceful negotiations. But China remains wary of the United States becoming more deeply involved in the dispute.
Tension between Beijing and Washington over the South China Sea escalated last year when the Obama administration stressed its support for a collective regional solution to the mosaic of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China favors dealing with each dispute separately with countries making territorial claims and denounced what it calls "internationalizing" the issue.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley)