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HANOI - Vietnam has defended a new maritime law claiming sovereignty over the fiercely-contested Paracel and Spratly islands, dismissing protests from China as "absurd".
Vietnam's National Assembly on Thursday adopted the Law on the Sea, which places the disputed mineral-rich islands under Hanoi's sovereignty, prompting Beijing to summon Vietnam's ambassador to oppose the "illegal and invalid" move.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun summoned Ambassador Nguyen Van Tho and told him that Hanoi's new law claiming the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands was a "serious violation" and called for an "immediate correction".
"Vietnam's Maritime Law, declaring sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, is a serious violation of China's territorial sovereignty. China expresses its resolute and vehement opposition," Zhang said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The law was null and void, Zhang said, adding that China would "resolutely defend" its sovereignty. "China demands the Vietnamese side ... not do anything to harm relations or the peace and stability of the South China Sea."
China and Vietnam, as well as other neighboring nations such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia, are locked in long-standing territorial disputes over the South China Sea, including the Spratlys and Paracels.
Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal opponents of China's claims.
"Vietnam resolutely rejects the absurd accusations by the Chinese side," Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said in a statement posted on the ministry's website late Thursday.
The new law -- the first adopted by Hanoi covering the South China Sea -- is "normal law-making activity", he said, adding that Vietnam had "indisputable legal basis and historical evidence of its sovereignty over the islands".
Vietnam's National Assembly says all foreign naval ships passing through the waters must notify Vietnamese authorities.
"More seriously, (Vietnam) strongly opposes China's establishment of the so-called 'Sansha City,'" Nghi said.
China said Thursday it had elevated the administrative status of the Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha (Paracel) islands from a county to a prefectural-level district under the control of the city of Sansha.
The official Thanh Nien newspaper reported Friday that the law was adopted by 495 out of 496 deputies and will come into force in January 2013.
China and South Vietnam once administered different parts of the Paracels but after a brief conflict in 1974 Beijing took control of the entire group of islands.
Vietnam holds several of the larger Spratly Islands and neighboring countries have long been locked in diplomatic rows over their conflicting claims.
China says it has sovereign rights to the South China Sea, believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits, including areas close to the coastlines of other countries and hundreds of kilometers from its own landmass.
The South China Sea is potentially the biggest flashpoint for confrontation in Asia, and tensions have risen since the United States adopted a policy last year to reinforce its influence in the region.
The disputed region is a key trading route for the United States, which has opposed Beijing's attempts to settle conflicting claims bilaterally, repeatedly calling instead for the peaceful resolution of disputes.
In the past few days, both Beijing and the Manila cited bad weather after pulling back vessels from a two-month stand-off near the Scarborough Shoal, a contested group of rocks in the South China Sea.
But China has spent nearly $1 billion on an ultra-deepwater rig that appears intended to explore the disputed waters.
"Our navy has the absolute ability and the absolute confidence to use arms to defend our country's sovereignty, territorial integrity and maritime rights ... We're just waiting for the order," he said. With reports from Michael Martina, Ben Blanchard and Hanoi newsroom, Reuters