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China Seeks to Coerce Vietnam With Sea Maneuvers, U.S. Says

Glen Carey and Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen

(Bloomberg) -- China is taking “aggressive steps” to coerce Southeast Asian nations into halting work with international oil and gas companies in the energy-rich waters off of Vietnam, the U.S. said.

The deployment of a government-owned survey vessel with armed escorts “is an escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea” and forcing them “to work only with China’s state-owned enterprises,” Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday.

The South China Sea remains a source of continuing tension between the U.S. and China, even as the world’s two biggest economies engage in a bitter trade war. Vietnam said Thursday that it will join the U.S. in naval drills with other Southeast Asian nations for the first time next month, as it seeks international support in its maritime dispute with China.

Vietnam has been protesting the presence of a Chinese surveying ship along with Coast Guard escorts in oil-producing waters off Vietnam’s coast. The Chinese vessels, which were engaged in a weeks-long standoff with Vietnamese vessels, withdrew earlier this month, only to return Aug. 13, according to Le Thi Thu Hang, a Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman.

China lashed out at the criticism from the U.S.

The U.S. is trying “to drive a wedge between China and other countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a press briefing in Beijing today. “The aim is to create chaos in the situation in the South China Sea and damage regional peace and stability.”

In May, “Vietnam unilaterally started its oil and gas exploitation work in the Chinese jurisdiction in the South China Sea,” Geng said. “This is the cause of the current situation. China’s ship has been working in the relevant waters within China’s jurisdiction since July this year.”

Vietnam, meanwhile, is demanding China pullback.

China must “immediately stop the violation, withdraw all of its ships and conduct no more actions that violate our sovereignty rights in the area,” Hang told reporters in Hanoi on Thursday. Vietnam calls on the international community “to make concrete and active contributions to maintain order, peace and security in the region,” she added.

Vietnam is “deeply concerned” about China’s actions off Vietnam’s coast, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said during a media briefing Friday morning with his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison in Hanoi, according to Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Morrison said he and Phuc discussed “principles that relate to freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight” and ensure nations can pursue development opportunities within their exclusive economic zones, according to a transcript on the Australian prime minister’s website.

‘Energy Security’

The U.S. “strongly opposes any efforts by China to threaten or coerce partner countries into withholding cooperation with non-Chinese firms, or otherwise harassing their cooperative activities,” Ortagus said. “The United States is committed to bolstering the energy security of our partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific region and in ensuring uninterrupted regional oil and gas production for the global market.”

Vietnam is working to demonstrate it has support from all Southeast Asian countries and major maritime powers, including the U.S., said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“Vietnam’s posture is shifting because the situation is getting much more serious,” Thayer said. While its announcement is vague, Vietnam is nonetheless “incrementally pushing back against China.”

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited Danang in Vietnam last year, highlighting a growing relationship between the former enemies. Vietnam’s navy, which has participated in exercises with China and other countries, has never participated in drills with the U.S., Hang said.

(Updates with Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson in the 5th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Kevin Hamlin.

To contact the reporters on this story: Glen Carey in Washington at gcarey8@bloomberg.net;Nguyen Dieu Tu Uyen in Hanoi at uyen1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert, John Boudreau

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