Hanoi: Vietnam launched a live-fire naval drill off its central coast on Monday amid a nasty spat with China following two maritime incidents over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
A naval officer based in central Quang Nam province said the first part of the nine-hour exercise began in the morning on and around the uninhabited island of Hon Ong, some 25 miles (40 kilometres) off the coast. He declined to give his name because he was not authorised to speak to the press.
He said it was a routine annual training exercise involving various types of artillery and other weapons, but that no missiles would be fired. He declined to say how many troops or vessels would be involved. A second drill lasting five hours was scheduled for the evening.
"It has nothing to do with the recent incidents involving China," he said.
The drill comes after Hanoi and Beijing exchanged heated jabs over two recent scrapes involving Vietnamese-operated oil and gas exploration vessels in waters claimed by both countries. Vietnam says Chinese vessels cut cables attached to boats conducting a seismic survey off its coast, while China accuses Vietnam of illegally entering its waters and putting fishermen`s lives at risk.
Both say the incidents occurred in different areas.
The neighbouring communist countries have a long history of diplomatic tussles over incidents near the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed all or in part by Vietnam, China and several other Asian nations. The area, which straddles vital shipping lanes, is believed to be teeming with fish and rich in oil and gas reserves.
However, Hanoi has responded much more angrily to the current uproar. It accuses China of attempting to create new disputed areas in waters within 200 nautical miles of Vietnam`s coast, which are guaranteed as an economic exclusion zone by international law.
China says the May 26 and June 09 incidents occurred near the Spratly islands, and has issued terse warnings for Vietnam to settle down. China`s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment Monday.
On Sunday, hundreds of Vietnamese staged a second round of rare protests in Hanoi and southern Ho Chi Minh City, calling for China to stay out of its territory. Demonstrations are typically quashed quickly by police.
The United States, which has said the South China Sea is in its national interest, has encouraged a diplomatic exchange to keep regional tensions from flaring.