BEIJING (Reuters) - China chided its neighbour Vietnam on Tuesday, saying the Southeast Asian country was straining ties by asserting claims to a chain of islands that may be rich in oil.
Vietnamese protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi and the consulate in Ho Chi Minh city over the weekend, proclaiming that the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands belonged to their country.
The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said the protests were spontaneous and quickly ended by officials, the Vietnam News Agency reported. But China’s Foreign Ministry responded with a warning that the quarrel could harm ties.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands,” ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular news conference. He said China and Vietnam had previously agreed to settle the dispute through negotiations.
“Recently in Vietnam there have been developments unfavourable to friendly ties between China and Vietnam, and we are highly concerned.”
Qin said Hanoi had to take steps to “prevent further developments and avoid harming bilateral relations”.
Territorial disputes between the two Communist neighbours have a history of turning ugly.
The Spratly Islands, a string of rocky outcrops in the South China Sea suspected of spanning large oil and gas deposits, are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.
China seized the Paracel Islands, a set of islets just north of the Spratly group, in 1974 and has occupied them since despite Vietnamese protests.
In June, BP Plc halted plans to conduct exploration work off the southern Vietnamese coast, citing the territorial tensions.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Vietnam was stirring up trouble by agreeing with BP and its partners to develop the area.
Vietnam has long been wary of its bigger Asian neighbour and in 1979 the two countries fought a border war.
In 1988, China and Vietnam fought a brief naval battle near one of the Spratly Island reefs. But the two Communist neighbours normalised relations in 1991 and tensions have eased considerably in recent years.