BEIJING (Reuters) - 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.
A senior U.S. official in Washington dismissed the Chinese statement as "patently ridiculous" and said Beijing had been using air force and navy as well as coastguard assets "to intimidate others."
Scores of Vietnamese and Chinese ships, including coastguard vessels, have squared off around the rig despite a series of collisions after the Chinese platform was towed into disputed waters in early May.
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 Beijing 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 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 standoff round the rig has been taking place, Yi added.
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.
Beijing stations military forces on some of the numerous islands it occupies in the Spratly and Paracel Island groups in the South China Sea.
The Haiyang Shiyou 981 rig is drilling between the Paracel Islands and the Vietnamese coast. Vietnam has said the rig is in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and on its continental shelf, while China says it is operating within its waters.
The United States has not taken sides in the territorial disputes but has been strongly critical of China's behaviour in pressing its claims and called for negotiatiated solutions.
The U.S. official called Yi Xianliang's statement "a weak attempt to obscure what China is really doing."
"China has maintained a robust and consistent military presence near the oil rig since its placement on May 2, including flying helicopters and planes over and around the rig. There are currently multiple military vessels in the vicinity of the rig," he said.
The official said that on any given day, there were also Chinese navy warships in waters disputed with the Philippines.
Reiterating U.S. criticism of how China has handled maritime disputes with its neighbours, he said China’s actions were "creating serious frictions" in relations with Washington.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung told Reuters last month his government was considering various "defence options" against China, including legal action, a move the United States has said it would support.
Yi Xianliang denied China was blocking any proposals by Hanoi 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 rumours or distorting of facts is to achieve the aim of lodging a lawsuit, then I have to say that this is a miscalculation."
The rig's deployment triggered anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam last month that killed at least four workers.
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)