WRAPUP 4-Vietnam condemns China's sea claims as "serious violation"

* Vietnam spokesman calls on China to stop "wrongful acts"

* Petrovietnam says seismic cable cut, accuses Chinese boats

of sabotage

* India says it will protect its maritime and economic

interests

* South China Sea tensions escalate as China flexes muscles

HANOI/NEW DELHI, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Vietnam condemned on

Tuesday China's claims to disputed South China Sea islands as a

serious violation of its sovereignty after saying it was setting

up patrols to protect its fisheries and accusing Chinese boats

of sabotage.

The condemnation of China's claims to the sea and its

numerous reefs and tiny islands was the strongest yet from

Vietnam since tension flared this year and came after India

declared itself ready to send navy ships to safeguard its

interests in the disputed waters.

Claims by an increasingly powerful China over most of the

South China Sea have set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam

and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also

claim parts of the mineral-rich waters.

Vietnam's condemnation came 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.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned the cable

cutting as well as some recent Chinese provincial regulations

that identified the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands as

Chinese, and a map that did the same thing.

"The actions of the Chinese side have seriously violated

Vietnam's sovereignty over the two archipelagos," the spokesman,

Luong Thanh Nghi, said in a statement.

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials met representatives of

the Chinese embassy in Hanoi on Monday, Nghi said.

The Vietnamese officials handed over a diplomatic note

"resolutely opposing the above mentioned actions by the Chinese

side, asking China to respect Vietnam's sovereignty, to

immediately stop such wrongful acts and not to repeat similar

actions."

Earlier, Vietnam said civilian-led patrols, backed by marine

police and a border force, would be deployed from Jan. 25 to

stop foreign vessels violating fishing laws in Vietnam's waters.

A decree on 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."

On Monday, Petrovietnam said the seismic vessel 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, in which he said the cable

was 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.

Asked about the complaint, Chinese Foreign Ministry

spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing that China was

checking the reports of the incident, which he said was

understood to have taken place in an area of overlapping claims.

"Chinese fishing boats were operating in normal fishing

activities," Hong said.

COLLISION COURSE?

India has also declared itself ready to deploy naval vessels

to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests

there, a new source of tension in a disputed area where fears of

conflict have been growing steadily.

Indian navy chief, Admiral D.K Joshi, said on Monday that,

while India was not a territorial claimant in the South China

Sea, it was prepared to act, if necessary, to protect its

maritime and economic interests in the region.

"When the requirement is there, for example, in situations

where our country's interests are involved, for example ONGC ...

we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that,"

Joshi told a news conference.

"Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of

that nature? The short answer is yes," he said.

An Indian government spokesman on Tuesday played down the

comments: "This is an issue for the parties concerned to

resolve."

India is not the only non-claimant nation concerned about

disruption to shipping or oil exploration in the South China

Sea. The United States, a close ally to several of the Southeast

Asian claimants, has also voiced concern at the prospect of

China stopping international ships in contested waters.

India has sparred diplomatically with China in the past over

its gas and oil exploration block off the coast of Vietnam.

Any display of naval assertiveness by India in the South

China Sea would likely fuel concern that the navies of the two

rapidly growing Asian giants could be on a collision course as

they seek to protect trade routes and lock in the supply of

coal, minerals and other raw material from foreign sources.

Joshi described the modernisation of China's navy as

"truly impressive" and a source of major concern for India.

Asked what China would do if Indian navy entered the South

China Sea to protect its oil interests, the Chinese Foreign

Ministry spokesman, Hong, said China had "indisputable

sovereignty" over the sea's islands and surrounding waters.

"China opposes unilateral oil and gas development in

disputed waters of the South China Sea. We hope that concerned

countries respect China's position and rights, and respect

efforts made through bilateral talks to resolve disputes."

Singapore, home to the world's second-busiest container

port, joined the Philippines on Monday in expressing concern at

the prospect of Chinese police boarding ships. The Philippines

on Saturday condemned the Chinese plan as illegal.

Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the

South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the

U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report.

That would surpass the proven oil reserves of every country

except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP

Statistical Review.

On Monday, China's National Energy Administration said China

aims to produce 15 billion cubic metres of natural gas a year

from the South China Sea by 2015.

It said the sea would "form the main part" of China's

offshore gas exploration plans.

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