Vietnamese protest over islands dispute with China

Associated Press, Hanoi | World | Sun, July 01 2012

A group of Vietnamese marched through the capital’s streets shouting “Down with China!” in a rare protest Sunday following growing tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

About 200 people chanted in the rain, some waving flags and holding signs, as they walked through central Hanoi toward the Chinese Embassy. Police stopped traffic and did not attempt to quash the event, but the area near the embassy was cordoned off.

The protest follows China’s recent announcement that it will open nine oil and gas lots for development to international bidders, even though the area overlaps with Vietnam’s current exploration contracts.

“We are very angry with China’s recent offer to look for oil inside Vietnam’s territory,” said Phuong Bich, 53, who was arrested three times last year during similar demonstrations that were broken up. “We urge the government to take action.”

Hanoi says the area where the China National Offshore Oil Corp., or CNOOC, has identified lies within Vietnam’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. State-owned PetroVietnam has encouraged foreign companies to ignore China’s offer and says it will continue working on contracts signed with ExxonMobil, Russia’s Gazprom, India’s ONGC and PetroVietnam affiliate PVEP.

Rhetoric between the two communist neighbors has become increasingly hostile in recent weeks. Beijing’s Defense Ministry said it has “battle-ready” patrols protecting its interests in the South China Sea and warned Vietnam to back off its reported aerial patrols of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Contested areas of the South China Sea are a long-standing source of animosity among claimants from Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Disputed territory straddles important international shipping lanes and is believed to be teeming with fish and rich in oil and gas reserves. Some fear the brewing tensions could result in violence.

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