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South China Sea: Vietnam accuses China of dragging oil rig into its waters

Bangkok: Vietnam has accused China of towing a $1 billion oil rig into disputed waters of the South China Sea in a potential re-run of a stand-off that sparked violent anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in 2014.

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China calls for 'calm' over South-China Sea

Disputes over the South China Sea flare as Vietnam claims that China's Haiyang Shiyou oil rig is within disputed waters.

But China insists the giant state-owned rig called Haiyang Shiyou 981 is still in its territorial waters and called on Vietnam to remain calm over the dispute.

China's decision to again tow the same rig from its shores as it did in 2014 comes at a highly sensitive time in Vietnam as the country's communist leaders gather for their five-yearly congress.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Vietnam and the South China Sea from Australia's Defence Force Academy, said China's move appeared ill-timed and counter-productive, possibly boosting support for the country's reforming communist leaders who have been locked in a bitter factional struggle with traditional old guard leaders, who are closer to Beijing.

In 2014 China's deployment of the rig about 120 nautical miles off Vietnam's coast led to the worst breakdown in relations between the neighbouring communist countries in decades.

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Five people were killed and hundreds of Vietnamese factories owned by Chinese and other countries were looted and burned.

Chinese and Vietnamese vessels faced each other down near the rig the size of a football oval for months before it was removed.

Analysts said that dispute accelerated Vietnam's efforts to improve relations with the United States and other global powers.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry claims the deep-water rig was towed into disputed waters last Saturday and demanded that it be withdrawn.

But China's Foreign Ministry hit back, saying the rig is operating in "Chinese controlled waters that are completely undisputed."

"We hope the Vietnamese side can view this calmly, meet China half-way and jointly work hard to appropriately handle relevant maritime issues," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

The rig owned by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation is China's first domestically-built mobile drilling platform.

China's Maritime Safety Administration said it would be drilling 150 kilometres west of the Paracel Islands that China occupies and Vietnam claims until March 10. 

The agency warned ships to stay clear of the area. . 

Earlier in January Vietnam accused China of jeopardising the safety of civilian flights over the South China Sea by landing aircraft on an artificial island that China had constructed in a contested area.

China rejected the complaint, saying the planes landed within China's sovereign territory.

Also earlier in January the United States obtained final approval to expand its military presence in the Philippines in a move seen as countering China's claims in the flashpoint waters where there are overlapping territorial claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

The US has also begun making spy flights over the region in Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft based in Singapore, and Vietnam's new advanced Kilo-class submarines have begun patrols to reinforce that country's territorial claims.

The South China Sea is believed to be resource rich and goods worth more than US$5 trillion transit its strategic waterways each year.

-With agencies

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