MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Vietnam's prime minister said Thursday that his country was considering legal action against China, which deployed an oil rig earlier this month to disputed waters, prompting anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam and a tense standoff between ships from both countries in the area.
In a written reply to questions sent by The Associated Press, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said Vietnam would fiercely defend its territory but would never resort to military action "unless we are forced to take self-defense actions."
"Like all countries, Vietnam is considering various defense options, including legal actions in accordance with the international law," said Dung, who held talks with his Philippine counterpart in Manila that focused on their territorial rifts with China.
Dung did not specify what legal action Hanoi was considering. Last year, the Philippines filed a complaint against China before an international tribunal in The Hague to challenge the legality of its sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China claimes nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, bringing it into conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines and three other governments that have rival claims. Beijing also has a territorial dispute with Japan over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea.
When asked if his country would risk going to war in disputed waters, Dung said his country would never venture into that.
"Military solution? The answer is No," Dung said in the email. "Vietnam has endured untold suffering and losses from past invasive wars ... We are never the first to use military means and would never unilaterally start a military confrontation unless we are forced to take self-defense actions."
After discussing China's increasingly assertive behavior in disputed waters, Dung and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III read separate statements before journalists at the presidential palace in Manila on Wednesday.
The "president and I shared deep concern over the current extremely dangerous situation caused by China's many actions that violate international law," Dung said.
"The two sides are determined to oppose China's violations and call on countries and the international community to continue strongly condemning China and demanding China to immediately end the above said violations," he said.
Aquino did not mention the territorial disputes with China when he and Dung faced journalists but said they discussed how their countries could enhance defense and economic ties, adding that both governments aim to double two-way trade to $3 billion in two years.
"In defense and security, we discussed how we can enhance confidence-building, our defense capabilities and inter-operability in addressing security challenges," Aquino said.
The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, has been more vocal in opposing China than Vietnam, which has been trying to quietly resolve its territorial dispute with Beijing. But Hanoi was incensed by the deployment of the oil rig on May 1, leading to speculation it would shift its approach.
Vietnam dispatched ships to confront the Chinese oil rig that have jostled with Chinese vessels defending it. Last week rioting broke out in Vietnam that killed at least two Chinese workers and wounded more than 100 others.
At least two Vietnamese diplomats have told The AP earlier that Vietnam might now file its own appeal or join Manila's legal challenge against China. A senior Philippine government official told The AP that Dung and other Vietnamese officials mentioned that plan to their Philippine counterparts in closed-door meetings on Wednesday.
Many have feared that long-seething territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea could spark Asia's next major armed conflict. Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have overlapping territorial claims in the strategic area.
China and the Philippines are in a standoff over another South China Sea reef, the Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese coast guard ships have three times attempted to block Filipino vessels delivering new military personnel and food supplies to Philippine marines keeping watch on the disputed area on board a long-grounded ship.
Chinese maritime surveillance ships took effective control of Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines after Filipino government vessels withdrew from the disputed fishing ground two years ago. Alarmed by China's move, the Philippines challenged the legality of Beijing's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration tribunal last year.
The Philippines took the legal step after exhausting other peaceful means to resolve its territorial disputes with China, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said. He suggested Vietnam make an assessment as to whether resorting to legal means would promote its national interests, he said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.