China is downplaying an incident in which Chinese and Vietnamese vessels collided in a disputed area of the South China Sea, where Beijing has set up a state-run oil rig over the objections of Hanoi.
Speaking Thursday in Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping declined to describe the incident as a "clash." He also said he is optimistic China can peacefully resolve the situation with Vietnam, which he called a "friendly" neighbor.
"Certainly the two sides have some disputes in the relevant area. But I think, as I just stressed, China and Vietnam are friendly neighbors and the friendly cooperation between the two countries is in the fundamental interests of both countries. I believe China and Vietnam can resolve the relevant disputes through peaceful negotiations."
Vietnam on Wednesday said Chinese ships intentionally and repeatedly rammed into Vietnamese vessels multiples times in the past several days. Vietnamese officials said several boats were damaged and at least six sailors were injured.
The incident occurred near the Paracel Islands, about 220 kilometers from Vietnam's shores, in an area Hanoi claims as its exclusive economic zone. Last week, China announced it placed a deep-sea oil platform there, a move Vietnam has rejected.
Tensions are also heightened in another part of the South China Sea, after the Philippines this week arrested 11 Chinese fishermen in a disputed area near the Half Moon Shoal in the Spratly Islands.
Philippine police say authorities are further investigating the men, who were found Tuesday in possession of 350 endangered sea turtles. National Police Chief Alan Purisima on Thursday dismissed China's demands to release the men.
"That is their assertion. Our assertion is that (territory) is ours, so that is Philippine territory. That's why there are disputes, but we will do the process, and let the process take its course."
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea. Its claims overlap with that of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.