China vehemently opposes external powers meddling in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, the main military newspaper said on Tuesday, after Vietnam asked for international help to defuse tensions over the potentially resource-rich region.
The warning in the Liberation Army Daily coincided with exercises conducted by Vietnam's military along its central coast, and follows a weekend statement by Hanoi welcoming efforts by the international community, including the United States, to help resolve the disputes.
China and Vietnam have hurled accusations at each other for weeks over what each sees as intrusions into its territorial waters by the other, in a swath of ocean crossed by key shipping lanes and thought to hold large deposits of oil and gas.
Such accusations are not uncommon between China, Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, which are also involved in long-standing maritime disputes in the South China Sea, but this bout of tension has run longer than usual.
The commentary in the Liberation Army Daily repeated Beijing's warning that other "unrelated" countries should back off, adding the Chinese military's weight to that message. "This dispute must be resolved peacefully through friendly consultations between the two parties involved," the paper said. "Therefore, China resolutely opposes any country unrelated to the South China Sea issue meddling in disputes, and it opposes the internationalisation of the South China Sea issue."
Tensions between China and the United States intensified last year after the Obama administration became embroiled in the South China Sea dispute, stressing Washington's support for a collective solution. This year Sino-U.S relations have steadied, and Washington has so far been more muted about the issue.
Beijing insists on handling the disputes over the region on a one-on-one basis rather than multilaterally, a strategy some critics have described as "divide and conquer".
The Liberation Army Daily comes under the control of China's ruling Communist Party and its Central Military Commission, and although commentaries in the paper do not amount to government policy, they are carefully vetted to reflect official thinking.
Last year, as chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam sought to internationalise the South China Sea disputes and succeeded in putting it on the agenda at a regional security forum, much to China's displeasure.
The Liberation Army Daily commentary accused Vietnam of stirring up tensions by conducting the exercises in part of the exclusive economic zone it claims in the sea. "These actions to exaggerate and exacerbate conflict will not help solve the South China Sea problems," the paper said. "The country concerned should stop its unilateral actions to expand and make more complicated the South China Sea dispute, and no longer make untruthful and irresponsible statements."
A Vietnamese military source confirmed the live-fire drills were underway. Vietnam's military newspaper, in turn, accused China at the weekend of creating disputes "through provocative actions (and) hostilities aimed at its neighbours".
Vietnam's Prime Minister also issued a decree outlining the terms of a possible military draft, a move experts said was a signal from the communist authorities that the country it was prepared to defend its interests.
"Vietnam is speaking to two audiences. It's speaking to a domestic audience where it is under pressure to be shown to be taking steps to deal with China. The other is to China," Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, told Reuters.