CHINA has begun moving a second oil rig to the South China Sea even as high-level talks with Vietnam failed to resolve simmering tensions over an existing oil rig in waters that both countries claim.
The new rig, "Nanhai No. 9", is being towed in a south-west direction from Hainan Island, said a notice posted by the China Maritime Safety Administration on Wednesday. It asked ships to give the rig a wide berth.
It was unclear if the oil rig was heading towards disputed waters; Vietnamese media said the coordinates of its destination were in the area off the mouth of the Gulf of Tonkin, midway between the Chinese and Vietnamese coasts.
When asked yesterday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hua Chunying would only say that the oil rig would be carrying out works "in the waters around Hainan Island".
The move, which could raise tensions further, came as high- level talks between Chinese and Vietnamese officials in Hanoi failed to yield a breakthrough.
Yesterday, the Vietnamese authorities in Hanoi broke up a small anti-China protest against the first oil rig and detained many people, reported Agence France-Presse.
The meetings between Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vietnamese leaders on Wednesday, the first high-level bilateral talks after over a month of tense relations, saw no compromise.
The state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urged China to withdraw the first rig. He told Mr Yang - who outranks Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Chinese political hierarchy - that China's behaviour severely violated Vietnam's sovereignty and offended the Vietnamese people.
He said its placement was a serious violation of agreements reached between the two countries and broke international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also went against the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between China and Asean in 2002.
Sino-Vietnamese ties have been fraught since May 2, when China moved the rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. Anti-China riots ensued in Vietnam, killing four people, while Chinese and Vietnamese ships have clashed often around the rig.
Yesterday, Ms Hua said the talks had been "candid and constructive", with both sides affirming the importance they placed on bilateral ties. Mr Yang had expressed to Vietnamese leaders that China placed great importance on its ties with Vietnam, and was sincere in wanting to resolve the maritme situation through dialogue, she said.
But she said the first oil rig is in Chinese territory, and that China "will take all actions to protect its sovereignty and maritime rights, and to ensure that the works are carried out safely and smoothly".
She urged Vietnam to stop its ships from harassing the rig, and to compensate Chinese businesses and nationals for losses suffered in last month's riots.
Dr Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the second rig was likely being sent to waters in the Gulf of Tonkin that have yet to be delimited. "The timing of this move during the talks in Hanoi is not coincidental. Clearly, China is sending a message to Vietnam that it is not backing down."
But Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Asean expert Xu Liping said it was a significant concession from China that Mr Yang travelled to Hanoi for talks.
"The relationship that China and Vietnam have is unique, in that there is a fundamental closeness that China does not have in its ties with, for example, the Philippines," he said, referring to another Asean country embroiled in territorial disputes with China.
"Even while they fight, they are talking. This shows closeness and continuing communication."