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Vietnam fights China moves to hinder offshore energy exploration

[HANOI] Vietnam is pushing back harder against China's efforts to isolate it diplomatically on a territorial dispute in an energy-rich part of the South China Sea.

The foreign ministry in Hanoi on Thursday called on China to immediately order a state-owned survey vessel along with several Coast Guard escorts to leave Vietnamese-claimed waters in its exclusive economic zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles from its coast. It also said a multi-billion dollar oil and gas project being carried out by state-owned Vietnam Oil & Gas Group and Exxon Mobil in block 118 of the waters would continue unimpeded.

"Any activities that hamper Vietnam's oil and gas exploration in Vietnamese water are violations of international laws," Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokeswoman for Vietnam's foreign ministry, told reporters during a briefing on Thursday.

The Chinese-owned Haiyang Dizhi 8 has intermittently zigzagged across a Vietnam-demarcated block of water to study the seabed in an active drilling block operated by Russia's state-owned Rosneft Oil PJSC since early July. China claims most of the South China Sea with a map of a nine-dash line stretching far from the mainland, and has sought to negotiate one-on-one deals with countries in the region on sharing energy and fish resources.

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The latest Vietnamese statements came after China scored diplomatic wins with other South China Sea claimants. On Monday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed with his Malaysian counterpart Saifuddin Abdullah on the establishment of a bilateral consultation mechanism to "properly handle" disputes in the South China Sea.

China also appears to be making progress on a joint exploration deal with the Philippines, with President Rodrigo Duterte saying earlier this week he would ignore an international court ruling affirming his country's territorial claims in order to advance energy cooperation with Beijing. Mr Duterte said the deal would entail a 60-40 revenue-sharing scheme favoring the Philippines.

"We're seeing a full court press with China to push its nine-dash line, press foreign oil companies and pressure countries into joint development deals," said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia who has written about South-east Asia security issues for more than two decades.

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