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Vietnam weighs law for coast guard to open fire to protect sovereignty

HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam wants to give its coast guard more flexibility to open fire at sea, amid tension in the busy South China Sea waterway, a draft law released on Wednesday showed.

The law, expected to be voted by lawmakers at the end of this year, would allow greater assertiveness in disputed waters by the coast guard, now armed with modern U.S. and Japanese patrol boats, in a policy likely to alarm neighbouring China.

China claims almost all the South China Sea, through which about $3 trillion worth of sea-borne trade passes every year. Vietnam and four other countries also say they have rights in the sea, believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.

Vietnam's coast guard could open fire to "protect sovereignty and sovereign rights in defence and security situations," said the draft, released on the website of the law making body, the National Assembly.

The coast guard could open fire to warn ships operating illegally in Vietnam's waters if they did not heed its request to halt illegal activities, it added.

Vietnam now allows coast guard officials to open fire only if their lives and safety are threatened, or in the pursuit of offenders and ships at sea who might otherwise escape, or to protect citizens whose lives are at risk.

The United States has given Vietnam 12 patrol boats to strengthen the Southeast Asian's nation maritime surveillance and protection capability. Japan has provided six used patrol boats and promised six new ones.

Vietnam is the country most openly at odds over parts of the disputed South China Sea with China, its biggest trade partner with which it has traditional ties through the Communist parties ruling both single-party countries.

Just last month Vietnam halted an oil drilling project off its southeastern coast by Spanish energy firm Repsol, following pressure from China.

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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