VIETNAM'S Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hinted yesterday that Hanoi will take China to the United Nations and Beijing countered by criticising its neighbour for unreasonably "blackening China's name", marking an escalation of tensions over their South China Sea dispute.
"Read my speech carefully and you will get your answer there," Mr Dung told The Straits Times shortly after saying at the World Economic Forum's East Asia Summit that Hanoi had "exhausted all dialogue channels with China".
He also warned that the risk of instability was rising, with "unforeseeable" consequences.
Vietnam says China has placed an oil rig 80 nautical miles within its exclusive economic zone and circled it with over 130 warships. This has led to Vietnam deploying its coast guard vessels around the rig. Each side has said its vessels have been rammed by the other, raising fears of an incident at sea leading to a wider conflagration between the two neighbours, who last fought a war in 1979.
"China gravely violates the international law and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to which China is also a signatory," Mr Dung said in his speech. The DOC signed by Asean and China in 2002 is not legally binding.
Hanoi said it had sent more than 20 diplomatic notes to Beijing up to the foreign minister's level, without a response.
Earlier in the day, Reuters quoted Mr Dung as saying Vietnam was considering all options, including filing a legal case. He did not say what the others were.
Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh told a news briefing that Hanoi had informed the UN about "its grave concern" over the deteriorating situation. He said "war will not be an option for Vietnam".
There has been widespread speculation that Vietnam may join the Philippines in dragging China to international forums over their rival South China Sea claims.
The Philippines submitted a case in late March to a UN tribunal challenging China's so-called "nine-dash line", which claims 90 per cent of the resource-rich sea. It was the first time Beijing has been subjected to international legal scrutiny over the waters.
Beijing refused to participate in the case and warned Manila its move will seriously damage ties.
Mr Dung yesterday accused China of "slandering and blaming" his country, while continuing to use force and escalate "its increasingly dangerous and serious acts of intimidation".
China countered that Hanoi is "is muddling black and white again on the foreign stage".
"Who is it that is infringing other countries' sovereignty? Who is it that is causing maritime uncertainty, and who is it that is spoiling the peace and stability of the South China Sea?" China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a Beijing news briefing yesterday. He took Vietnam to task for a surge of anti-China rage in Vietnam last week, when mobs torched or damaged hundreds of foreign-owned businesses and left four Chinese nationals dead.
Mr Vinh said the situation was under control. Hundreds have been detained and those responsible would face serious punishment. Affected firms will get tax relief and have their rents cancelled, Vietnam has said. Several thousand Chinese and Taiwanese left Vietnam last week, fearful of more violence.