Vietnam welcomes international help as sea dispute escalates
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam said on Saturday live-fire naval drills scheduled for Monday were "routine" and said it would welcome efforts by the international community, including the United States, to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea.
Tensions in the region have risen in the past two weeks, with China and Vietnam trading accusations of violating sovereignty in the Sea, home to important shipping lanes and potentially large oil and gas reserves.
The barrage of allegations followed an incident, made public by Vietnam late last month, in which authorities said a Chinese ship deliberately severed cables in use by a Vietnamese survey vessel in Vietnamese waters.
Although a military clash seems unlikely, the tensions could trouble diplomacy and possibly draw in the United States, which took up the South China Sea dispute last year. China has also quarrelled with the Philippines in recent weeks over maritime claims.
The website of a company involved in maritime safety, vms-north.vn, warned vessels to avoid live-fire drills in an area off central Vietnam.
"All vessels are to refrain from engaging in activities in the area during the live-fire period," the website said. The drills would take place from 8am-noon (0100-0500 GMT) and 7pm-midnight (1200-1700 GMT), it said.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga confirmed the drills, calling them "a routine annual training activity of the Vietnam navy in the area where the Vietnam navy regularly conducts training (activities) that are programed and planned annually for units of the Vietnam People's Military."
Asked about a possible role for the United States or others in resolving the disputes, Nga said in separate remarks late on Friday: "Maintaining maritime peace, stability, security and safety in the Eastern Sea is in the common interests of all nations within and outside the region."
"Every effort by the international community toward maintaining peace and stability in the Eastern Sea is welcome," she said, using the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim territory in the South China Sea. But China's claim is by far the largest, a vast U-shape over most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), including the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
China has sought to resolve its territorial disputes on a one-on-one basis, but concern over its growing military might and increasing willingness to use muscle to assert its claims has brought the Southeast Asian claimants closer.
Last year, as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations, Vietnam actively sought to internationalize the issue and succeeded in putting it on the agenda at a regional security forum, much to China's displeasure.
China announced on Thursday that its navy would hold "routine" drills at the end of the month in international waters in the Pacific Ocean.
China's growing military prowess and reach have alarmed other countries in the region, especially Japan and Taiwan, the island China claims as its own and has never renounced the use of force to recover.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)
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