HANOI/NEW DELHI - Vietnam is setting up patrols to protect its fisheries in the South China Sea after a state company accused Chinese boats of sabotage and India declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels to safeguard its interests in the disputed waters.
Vietnam's civilian-led patrols, backed by marine police and a border force, will be deployed from Jan. 25 to stop foreign vessels that violate fishing laws within Vietnam's waters, Vietnam's government and state media said.
The patrols illustrate mounting tension in the South China Sea where claims by an increasingly powerful China have set it directly against US allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the mineral-rich waters.
A decree forming the Vietnamese patrols was signed on Nov. 29, the day Chinese media announced new rules authorising police in the southern Chinese province of Hainan to board and seize foreign ships in the South China Sea.
"It's going to lead to friction," Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia security expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said of China's new rules that take effect from Jan 1 on boarding ships which "illegally enter" waters it claims.
"If it begins to assert these rights and isn't challenged over time it becomes customary, it becomes practice."
Vietnam's announcement on the patrols, published in Tuesday's Dan Viet newspaper, comes a day after its state oil and gas company, Petrovietnam, accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by cutting a seismic cable being towed behind a Vietnamese boat.
Petrovietnam said the seismic vessel, Binh Minh 02, had been operating outside the Gulf of Tonkin when the cable was severed on Friday. It had earlier been surveying the Nam Con Son basin further south - an area where Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field.
Petrovietnam posted on its website comments by the deputy head of exploration, Pham Viet Dung, to a journalist from Vietnam's Petrotimes that the seismic cable was quickly repaired and the survey resumed the following day.
"The blatant violation of Vietnamese waters by Chinese fishing vessels not only violates the sovereignty ... of Vietnam but also interferes in the normal operations of Vietnamese fishermen and affects the maritime activities of Petrovietnam,"Dung was quoted as saying.