China denounced Vietnamese and Philippine troops on Monday for getting together on a disputed island in the South China Sea to drink beer and play volleyball, calling it "a clumsy farce" and demanding that their governments stop causing trouble.
The gathering on the Vietnamese-held Southwest Cay in the contested Spratly archipelago on Sunday was billed as a display of unity that underscored growing cooperation between Vietnam and the Philippines. Both countries, along with China, claim the Southwest Cay, and Hanoi and Manila have felt clashed with China over the disputed South China Sea and its islands.
Philippine naval officials described the meeting of soldiers from the two sides, which also featured soccer and a tug-of-war competition, as a chance to show there can be harmony despite a web of overlapping claims to the potentially energy-rich waters.
But the gesture was certain to anger China, which issued its first response to the gathering on Monday.
"Don't you think this small move together by Vietnam and the Philippines is at most a clumsy farce?" China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing.
"China has irrefutable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and the seas nearby," she said. "We demand that Vietnam and the Philippines stop any behavior that picks quarrels and causes trouble ... and not do anything to complicate or magnify the dispute."
The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim some of the Spratlys, while China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the whole chain of islands. China also claims 90 percent of the 1.35 million square-mile South China Sea, its reach depicted on its maps with a so-called nine-dash line deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Diplomats and experts have described the partnership between Hanoi and Manila as part of a web of evolving relationships across Asia that are being driven by fear of China as well as doubts among some, especially in Japan, over the U.S. commitment to the region.
"We are not only bringing down walls of mistrust and suspicion with one another but building trust and confidence towards peacefully resolving our competing claims," said a senior Philippine naval official after Sunday's games.
Separately on Monday, China accused Vietnam of ramming its ships in the South China Sea more than 1,400 times and said while it wanted good relations with its neighbor it would not abandon its principles to achieve that.
A Vietnamese fishing boat sank on May 26 during a confrontation not far from where China has towed an oil rig, accompanied by a cordon of Chinese vessels, about 150 miles off Vietnam’s coast.
Last week, Vietnam television broadcast video showing a large Chinese vessel steaming after two Vietnamese fishing boats, then colliding with one, which subsequently capsized.
The dispute is the most serious deterioration of relations between the rival nations since a brief war in 1979 following Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia.
Shortly after China brought its oil rig into the area, Vietnam sent a large number of vessels into the area, China's Foreign Ministry said on Sunday. The rig's deployment also set off anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam last month in which at least four people were killed.
"There were as many as 63 Vietnamese vessels in the area at the peak, attempting to break through China's cordon and ramming the Chinese government ships for a total of 1,416 times," the ministry said. "China exercised great restraint and took necessary preventive measures."
China has communicated with Vietnam more than 30 times, asking it to "stop its illegal disruption," the ministry said.
"China wants good relations with Vietnam, but there are principles that China cannot abandon."