CHINA has lashed out at Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh for saying last week that Asean had to "get China out of the territorial waters" of Vietnam before formal talks could proceed in the escalating South China Sea dispute.
Expressing "strong displeasure and stern condemnation", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday said the comments were "not consistent with the role of secretary-general, and are detrimental to the progress of China-Asean ties".
"(Mr Minh) has ignored the facts and violated Asean's neutrality by unilaterally advocating another country's stand and sending the wrong signal to the world," said Mr Hong. "We ask Asean to stay neutral and take practical actions to protect and maintain the development of the China-Asean relationship."
Aside from Vietnam, three other Asean states - the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia - are claimants to the South China Sea, which China claims as its own.
Beijing's missive was the latest salvo as China and Vietnam clash over the former's May 2 deployment of an oil rig in contested waters. The row triggered anti-China riots across Vietnam last week, which left at least two Chinese nationals dead and scores injured.
China on Sunday suspended some unspecified bilateral exchanges as a warning to Vietnam.
Yesterday, Chinese ships and planes evacuated about 4,000 Chinese nationals from Vietnam, adding to the 3,000 at the weekend.
Mr Minh made the remarks to reporters last Friday at the Asean headquarters in Jakarta after a routine briefing.While the comments were not widely publicised then, analysts noted they made Mr Minh, who is Vietnamese, the first Asean secretary-general to publicly "pick sides" by identifying disputed waters as Vietnam's.
Asked what was the next step in the dispute, Mr Minh had told reporters: "We have to get China out of the territorial waters of Asean member states, which will be conducive to restoring confidence and... to progress in such formal consultations that we are looking to engage in with China."
Asked if he meant Vietnam's territorial waters, he said "yes".
Mr Minh was formerly Vietnam's deputy foreign minister. He was not available for comment at press time.
Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said: "On the one hand, Le Luong Minh is right to point out that unilateral actions like the deployment of the (oil rig)... increase tensions and make a resolution harder to achieve. On the other hand, he misspoke when he said that the rig was in Vietnam's 'territorial waters'."
Hanoi says the oil rig is operating in Vietnam's 200-nautical- mile exclusive economic zone but Beijing insists it is deployed in the waters of the Paracel Islands, which it has occupied since 1974.
"Asean secretary-generals could be nationals of claimant countries. But the person in the role cannot pass judgment on claims by identifying the waters as belonging to whom," said Jinan University Asean expert Zhang Mingliang. China does not view the South China Sea row as a China-Asean issue, he said.
"Some say that this is to preserve its bargaining advantage with each of the states. But a more fundamental reason is that Asean is not, as a group, claiming any territory. So what is it talking to China about?"
Additional reporting by Zakir Hussain in Jakarta