China reacted sharply on Tuesday to Vietnam's offer of two oil blocks in the South China Sea to India for exploration, saying no third party should involve itself in the tense maritime tussle between Beijing and Hanoi.
Vietnam also extended the contract of another oil block for two more years, in a slew of agreements signed during Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's two-day visit to India. India said the oil blocks offered to it fall in Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, but China claims the maritime territory as its own.
State-owned ONGC Videsh Ltd signed a pact to pick up stake in PetroVietnam's two exploration blocks (102/10 and 106/10), among five offered by Hanoi last year.
"China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands. Any lawful oil exploration activity in the South China Sea is fine by us. But if such activity undermines sovereignty and interests of China we are firmly opposed to this," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in Beijing, in the latest salvo against India's growing diplomatic closeness with Hanoi.
China and Vietnam are at loggerheads over the ownership of a clutch of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea known as Nansha or Spratly. Beijing has traditionally objected to New Delhi's exploration efforts in the resource-rich waters where China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have competing claims.
A joint statement issued in Delhi said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Dung agreed that freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea - a crucial international trade route - should not be impeded and called upon the sparring countries to exercise restraint.
The two prime ministers urged all parties concerned to avoid threat or use of force and resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law. China claims almost the entire sea, and Beijing and Hanoi have been in dispute over the hotly-contested waters.
"With regard to the Vietnamese PM's call for India to support the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea, I want to point out that the dispute should be resolved through dialogue and consultations by countries directly involved," Hong said at the regular press briefing on Tuesday.
Hong added that "relevant countries" should respect the efforts of the involved countries in trying to maintain regional peace.
In Delhi, Modi reaffirmed that Vietnam was a key pillar of India's Look East Policy, while Dung welcomed a greater role for New Delhi in the regional and international arena.