A Chinese official said on Friday that China will never send military forces to the scene of an increasingly ugly spat with Vietnam over an oil rig in the South China Sea, and accused Hanoi of trying to force an international lawsuit.
China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, but parts of the potentially energy-rich waters are also subject to claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China is also involved in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea with Japan.
Scores of Vietnamese and Chinese ships, including coastguard vessels, have squared off around the rig despite a series of collisions after the platform was towed to the area in early May.
The rig's deployment triggered anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam last month that killed at least four workers.
Vietnam has accused China of sending six warships, but Yi Xianliang, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, said that China had never sent military forces.
"I can tell you very clearly that from May 2 to today, including to when the (drilling) operations are complete, we have never, are not and will never send military forces. Because we are carrying out normal, civilian, commercial activities," he told a hastily arranged news conference.
"What I can tell you is that this is on a maritime route and at some periods there have been certain Chinese military ships coming back from the south but these have been far away" from where the stand-off round the rig has been taking place, Yi added.
China stations military forces on some of the numerous islands it occupies in the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
Last week, Vietnam broadcast footage of a Chinese ship colliding with a small fishing boat which capsizes in its path.
Yi showed pictures of much smaller Vietnamese ships appearing to nudge Chinese ships, and of Chinese maritime police fishing out pieces of wood and old fishing nets he said Vietnam had placed in the waters on purpose to act as obstacles.
He said that China had had more than 30 rounds of talks with Vietnam since the crisis began, and denied that China was blocking any proposals by Vietnam for high-level dialogue or for a special envoy to travel to Beijing.
"I know that certain people in Vietnam, perhaps because they are trying to find another way to resolve the problem, are creating certain conditions. The so-called other route is the so-called lawsuit way," he said.
"...If this spreading of rumors or distorting of facts is to achieve the aim of lodging a lawsuit, then I have to say that this is a miscalculation."
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told Reuters his government was considering various "defense options" against China, including legal action, a move the United States said it would support.
The Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig is drilling between the Paracel islands, which China occupies, and the Vietnamese coast. Vietnam has said the rig is in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf.
China says it is operating within its waters.
By Ben Blanchard