BEIJING - China responded cautiously on Tuesday to news of Vietnam's two most powerful warships making their first ever port of call in the Philippines, but hit back at Manila for fining several Chinese fishermen boats for poaching, saying the decision "violated China's sovereignty".
Both Vietnam and the Philippines are locked in territorial disputes with China, which lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea, believed to be rich minerals and oil and gas deposits. Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also have claims, creating one of Asia's biggest possible flashpoints.
Hanoi invited the diplomatic community to visit its Russian-built missile-guided frigates docked in Manila Bay at the start of a three-day goodwill visit on Tuesday.
A Philippine naval official said it was not trying to challenge China's superior naval forces, and that cooperation between the two sides would focus on peaceful acts such as search and rescue operations and the sharing of best practices.
China did not denounce the port of call, but urged both sides to "maintain the peace and stability" in the region.
"I think maintaining the peace and stability of the South China Sea or the entire region is everyone's shared desire, and at the same time, we hope, and need, everyone's joint efforts. So we hope that all of the related parties will be able do more things for the sake of respect and mutual trust to maintain the peace and stability of the region," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily media briefing.
Concern is growing about an escalation of disputes in the South China Sea even as claimants work to establish a binding code of conduct to resolve them.
A Philippine court on Monday (November 24) fined nine Chinese fishermen $102,000 each after they were caught with hundreds of sea turtles in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
Philippine police had arrested the fishermen and seized their boat off Half Moon Shoal, a disputed territory in the Spratly Islands, known as Nansha to the Chinese, within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone, in May.
Hua urged the Philippines to release the nine fishermen and the boat, condemning the Philippines' actions as "illegal".
"We believe the Philippines government illegally seized the Chinese fishing boat and fishermen in waters near the Nansha islands and made a so-called judicial judgement that violated China's sovereignty and rights of administration. China resolutely opposes this and is unwilling to accept it. We once again demand that the Philippines unconditionally release the people and boat," she said.
China has protested against the arrests, saying it does not recognize their trial and that the nine were detained in China's territorial waters.
It was not immediately clear how the fishermen would find the money to pay the fines, but they face six months' jail if they fail to pay up, with time already served suggesting they could even be released.