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," he said. "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 multiple 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.
Duong Danh Dy, a former Vietnamese diplomat to China and an expert on Vietnam-China relations, said in an interview with the VOA's Vietnamese service that the current situation is extremely dangerous and Vietnam can no longer compromise.
"I think Vietnam is capable of dealing with China. Vietnam in recent years has updated its military equipment," he said. "Vietnam has its own way of dealing with the issue. We defeated invaders from Chinese Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties in the past. China nowadays is not only violating our sovereignty, but at the same time also exploring our oil resources. If we step backward this time, they will push another step forward next time. We all know China very well."
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," he said. "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.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service. Tra Mi contributed from Washington.