BEIJING (REUTERS) - China described Vietnam's claim to disputed South China Sea islands as "ridiculous" on Monday, as tension rises over competing claims of sovereignty in waters believed to be rich in oil and natural gas.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, rejecting rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei in one of Asia's most intractable disputes and a possible flashpoint.
It also has a separate maritime dispute with Japan over islands in the East Sea.
The row with Vietnam intensified this month after China dispatched an oil rig to an area near the disputed Paracel islands.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry held a press conference on Friday when officials stressed the country's historical claim to the Paracels.
"Historical and legal evidence shows that Vietnam has absolute sovereignty in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos,"said Mr Tran Duy Hai, deputy head of Vietnam's National Border Committee.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang disagreed.
"Seeing that the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry held a press conference last Friday on the subject, I felt it was extremely ridiculous," he said at a briefing on Monday.
"The Paracels are the indisputable territory of the Chinese people."
Mr Qin said the Paracels had been part of Chinese territory since the Han dynasty, and that Chinese explorers had first discovered the islands.