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Vietnamese, Chinese vessels shadow box in South China Sea

BOARD VIETNAMESE COAST GUARD SHIP 4033 -- Each day the Vietnamese ships tried to get close to the rig. And each day they were driven back by the much larger Chinese ships.

But before they sped away, laboring engines spewing black smoke, the Vietnamese delivered a message: “Attention! Attention! We are warning you about your provocative act,” blasted out a recording from a loudspeaker in Vietnamese, Chinese and English. “We demand you respect Vietnam's sovereignty. Please immediately halt your activities and leave Vietnamese waters.”

Occasionally colliding with or firing water cannons at each other, Vietnamese and Chinese ships have been shadow boxing in a sun-dazzled patch of the South China Sea since May 1, when Beijing parked a hulking, US$1 billion deep sea oil rig, drawing a furious response from Vietnam.

Vietnam, ten times smaller than its northern neighbor and dependent on it economically, needs all the help it can get in the dispute. Its leaders believe international opinion is on their side. This week they invited foreign journalists to get a closer look at the standoff, the most serious escalation between the countries in years over their overlapping claims.

Vietnam is determined to defend what it regards as its sovereign territory against China, which insists that most of the South China Sea — including the Paracel Islands it took from U.S.-backed South Vietnam in 1974 — belongs to it. But Hanoi lacks options in dealing with Beijing, as China uses it burgeoning economic and military might to press its claims in the seas.

Vietnam has accused Chinese vessels of deliberately and dangerously ramming its ships. TV footage recorded last week from a Vietnamese ship showed a Chinese vessel smashing into the stern of the Vietnamese ship then backing up and ramming it again, damaging its side. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday released three photographs purportedly showing a Vietnamese vessel ramming a Chinese maritime ship. The media onboard this week did not witness any ramming.

“It is not that we want to be in confrontation with the Chinese, but it's our duty to carry out daily patrols in Vietnamese territory,” said Col. Le Trung Thanh, the skipper of the Vietnamese coast guard ship 4033. “We want to get close to the rig to persuade them that their actions are illegal and they must leave Vietnam's water unconditionally.”

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