Vietnam, locked in an ill-tempered spat with China over an oil rig deployed in disputed waters, will take Beijing to international court only as a "last resort", said Vietnamese Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh.
Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies yesterday, Gen Thanh demanded that China withdraw its oil rig immediately but said the preference was for the dispute to be resolved through talks.
"We still have room for peaceful dialogue. If we have to use (the legal option), it is only as a last resort," he added, days after a Vietnamese fishing boat sank from a collision with a Chinese vessel in waters near the disputed rig.
The spat was triggered last month by China placing an oil rig in waters in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
Several experts have suggested that Hanoi follow in Manila's footsteps by taking Beijing to international court. The Philippines filed a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in March challenging Beijing's claims, in a separate territorial dispute.
But Gen Thanh told the security summit that a legal move was considered an "undesirable option".
His comments appeared to be at odds with those of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who told Bloomberg last Friday that Hanoi had already gathered legal evidence and was mulling over the best time to launch such a suit.
If unresolved, experts said the oil rig incident could be a "game change" for how Hanoi makes its strategic calculations in future.
Ms Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser with the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: "Vietnam has always been divided between those who want to manage all of their problems with China bilaterally, and those who want to seek more outside help.
"There is the potential that this challenge to Vietnamese sovereignty could really shift that balance in a very substantial way."
Chua Chin Hon