HANOI/NEW DELHI - Vietnam is setting up patrols to protect its fisheries in the South China Sea after a state company accused Chinese boats of sabotage and India declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels to safeguard its interests in the disputed waters.
Vietnam's civilian-led patrols, backed by marine police and a border force, will be deployed from Jan. 25 to stop foreign vessels that violate fishing laws within Vietnam's waters, Vietnam's government and state media said.
The patrols illustrate mounting tension in the South China Sea where claims by an increasingly powerful China have set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the mineral-rich waters.
A decree forming the Vietnamese patrols was signed on Nov. 29, the day Chinese media announced new rules authorising police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize foreign ships in the South China Sea.
"It's going to lead to friction," Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia security expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said of China's new rules that take effect from Jan. 1 on boarding ships which "illegally enter" waters it claims.
"If it begins to assert these rights and isn't challenged over time it becomes customary, it becomes practice."
Vietnam's announcement on the patrols, published in Tuesday's Dan Viet newspaper, comes a day after its state oil and gas company, Petrovietnam, accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable being towed behind a Vietnamese boat.
Petrovietnam said the seismic vessel, Binh Minh 02, had been operating outside the Gulf of Tonkin when the cable was severed on Friday. It had earlier been surveying the Nam Con Son basin further south - an area where Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field.
Petrovietnam posted on its website comments by the deputy head of exploration, Pham Viet Dung, to a journalist from Vietnam's Petrotimes that the seismic cable was quickly repaired and the survey resumed the following day.
"The blatant violation of Vietnamese waters by Chinese fishing vessels not only violates the sovereignty ... of Vietnam but also interferes in the normal operations of Vietnamese fishermen and affects the maritime activities of Petrovietnam," Dung was quoted as saying.
India has also declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there, a new source of tension in a disputed area where fears of conflict have been growing steadily.
Indian navy chief, Admiral D.K Joshi, said on Monday that, while India was not a territorial claimant in the South China Sea, it was prepared to act, if necessary, to protect its maritime and economic interests in the region.
"When the requirement is there, for example, in situations where our country's interests are involved, for example ONGC ... we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that," Joshi told a news conference.
"Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes," he said.
An Indian government spokesman on Tuesday played down the comments: "This is an issue for the parties concerned to resolve."
India is not the only non-claimant nation concerned about disruption to shipping or oil exploration in the South China Sea. The United States, a close ally to several of the Southeast Asian claimants, has also voiced concern at the prospect of China stopping international ships in contested waters.
India has sparred diplomatically with China in the past over its gas and oil exploration block off the coast of Vietnam.
Any display of naval assertiveness by India in the South China Sea would likely fuel concern that the navies of the two rapidly growing Asian giants could be on a collision course as they seek to protect trade routes and lock in the supply of coal, minerals and other raw material from foreign sources.
Joshi described the modernisation of China's navy as "truly impressive" and a source of major concern for India.
Asked what China would do if Indian navy entered the South China Sea to protect its oil interests, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China had "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands and their surrounding waters in the sea.
"China opposes unilateral oil and gas development in disputed waters of the South China Sea. We hope that concerned countries respect China's position and rights, and respect efforts made through bilateral talks to resolve disputes," Hong said.
Singapore, home to the world's second-busiest container port, joined the Philippines on Monday in expressing concern at the prospect of Chinese police boarding ships.
"We urge all parties to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to refrain from provocative behaviour," its government said.
The Philippines on Saturday condemned the Chinese plan as illegal.
Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country's proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.
On Monday, China's National Energy Administration said China aims to produce 15 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year from the South China Sea by 2015.
It said the South China Sea would "form the main part" of China's offshore gas exploration plans.