UN says it is willing to mediate in China-Vietnam territorial row

This picture taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14, 2014, shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (left) being challenged by a China Coast Guard ship near to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig (right, background) being installed in the disp
This picture taken from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 14, 2014, shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship (left) being challenged by a China Coast Guard ship near to the site of a Chinese drilling oil rig (right, background) being installed in the disputed waters in the South China Sea off Vietnam's central coast. -- PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA - The United Nations says it is willing to mediate in the territorial row between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would be ready to mediate if the parties involved request for UN mediation, NHK reported.

It also quoted Mr Dujarric as saying Mr Ban has expressed hope that the dispute will be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law.

Chinese and Vietnamese vessels have been facing off near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea after a Chinese oil firm set up a drilling rig in the area in early May, according to NHK.

The office of China's representatives to the UN recently submitted to the secretary general a paper outlining the country's territorial claim. The document criticises Vietnam for taking a provocative attitude. It argues that the islands are inherent Chinese territory and this justifies the rig deployment, said NHK.

Vietnam has submitted to the UN papers about its territorial claim three times since last month.

Bloomberg on Wednesday reported that Vietnam said China again shifted the oil rig, with six warships guarding the structure. It was the third time the oil rig has been moved and it remains off Vietnam's coast in an area claimed by both countries, Bloomberg said, citing Vietnam News.

There are now six Chinese warships, 38 coast guard vessels, 13 cargo ships and 19 tugboats protecting the oil rig, according to the report.

By placing its oil rig in the disputed area last month, and in constructing artificial islands near the Spratlys, China is mapping out an aggressive strategy, Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said in a phone interview.

"It's an escalation," he said. "We are really reaching a regional crisis stage. It seems that China has reached a decision to go for broke."

Chinese ships are moving in reverse into the path of Vietnamese vessels in an attempt to make it appear as though the Chinese boats are being rammed, Vietnam News said. A Chinese boat struck a Vietnamese fishery surveillance boat on June 7, online news website VnExpress reported, citing Vietnam's fishery control department.

Vietnam meantime continues to send ships to the region near the rig. China's foreign ministry said in a statement on its website on June 9 that Chinese ships have been rammed more than 1,400 times.

Vietnam has also sent "frogmen" to the site and dropped obstacles such as fishing nets and floating objects in the water, the ministry said.

"Both Vietnam and China should remove all of their ships and China should remove the oil rig," US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Mr Daniel Russel, told reporters on Tuesday in a teleconference. "Both Vietnam and China need to de-escalate tensions, both need to exercise restraint," he said.

On the possible impact on Chinese investment in Vietnam, Transport Minister Dinh La Thang said he has not seen any indication that Chinese companies are pulling back on investment in the Southeast Asian country. This despite a report by the South China Morning Post on June 9 that China's state-owned companies have been told to temporarily halt bidding for Vietnam contracts.

"I haven't heard any Chinese companies say their government has told them not to bid on new projects in Vietnam," Mr Thang said in an interview in Hanoi. "If that's true, it will be their loss because it means they are giving away good business opportunities to other investors. If China tells its companies to withdraw from existing projects in Vietnam, I'm sure there are many other companies out there that will want to take over."

China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, with two-way trade rising 22 per cent to US$50.2 billion (S$63 billion) last year from 2012, Bloomberg said, citing data from Vietnam's General Statistics Office.

Vietnam and China aim to boost two-way trade to US$60 billion in 2015, according to an April 14 statement from Vietnam's government. Vietnam bought US$37 billion of goods from China last year, according to the statistics office.