MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Vietnam's prime minister said Thursday for the first time that his country is considering legal action against China over its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, a move that Beijing would likely fiercely oppose.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, bringing it into conflict with the far smaller nations of Vietnam, the Philippines and three others that have rival claims. Beijing also has a territorial dispute with Japan over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea.
Last year, the Philippines filed a complaint against China before an international tribunal in The Hague to challenge the legality of its claims, antagonizing China. Beijing wants any disputes with countries to be resolved bilaterally even as it continues to engage in what many in the region regard as provocative assertions of its sovereignty in the waters.
China raised the stakes in the region earlier this month when it deployed an oil rig in an area claimed by Vietnam, triggering fury in Hanoi, which sent ships to try to disrupt the drilling operation. Street protests morphed into bloody anti-Chinese riots that damaged hundreds of factories.
Vietnam had been trying a more low-key approach in its dealings with China, but the oil rig deployment prompted it to toughen its stance.
In a written reply to questions sent by The Associated Press, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said, "like all countries, Vietnam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with the international law." Dung did not specify what legal actions Hanoi was considering.
Two Vietnamese diplomats have previously told The AP that Vietnam might now file its own appeal or join Manila's legal challenge against China. A senior Philippine government official said Dung and other Vietnamese officials mentioned that plan to their Philippine counterparts in closed-door meetings on Wednesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Vietnam has notified the United Nations of China's actions, Deputy Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh told reporters in Manila.
Dung has demanded that China withdraw the rig, but Beijing insists it has done nothing wrong.
At a regular briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei accused Dung of "calling white black in the world community and attacking China in an absurd manner."
"What Vietnam should do is harshly punish the assailants in the smashing, looting, burning and beatings, protect Chinese companies, and stop the harassment of the Chinese drilling rig. Apart from that, they should pay compensation for all the damage," Hong said.
Dung said Vietnamese authorities have contained the rioting, and business in the affected areas is back to normal.
When asked if Vietnam would risk going to war in disputed waters, Dung said his country would never venture into that.
"Military solution? The answer is no," Dung said in the email. "Vietnam has endured untold suffering and losses from past invasive wars ... We are never the first to use military means and would never unilaterally start a military confrontation unless we are forced to take self-defense actions."
Dung used a speech at the opening of the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Manila on Thursday to again criticize China.
He warned that an armed conflict in the South China Sea, where a large share of the world's shipping passes, could be so debilitating "it may even reverse the trend of global economic recovery."
"The action by China has been directly threatening peace, stability and maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the East Sea," Dung said, using Vietnam's name for the South China Sea.
More than 130 ships, including military vessels, and aircraft have been deployed by China to guard the oil rig, he said.
On Wednesday, Dung said he and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III "shared deep concern over the current extremely dangerous situation caused by China's many actions that violate international law."
In a rare show of public unity between two states wrestling with China's growing assertiveness, Dung said Vietnam and the Philippines were "determined to oppose China's violations and call on countries and the international community to continue strongly condemning China and demanding China to immediately end the above said violations."
Aquino did not mention the territorial disputes with China when he and Dung faced journalists, but said they discussed how their countries could enhance defense and economic ties, adding that both governments aim to double two-way trade to $3 billion in two years.
Many have feared that long-seething territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea could spark Asia's next armed conflict. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping territorial claims in the strategic area.
China and the Philippines are in a standoff over another South China Sea reef, the Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese coast guard ships have tried three times to block Filipino vessels delivering new military personnel and food supplies to Philippine marines keeping watch on the disputed area on board a long-grounded ship.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano in Manila and Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.