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BEIJING, Sept 22 (Reuters) - A joint energy project between India and Vietnam in the South China Sea infringes on China's territorial sovereignty, an official Chinese newspaper said on Thursday in the first reaction to the operation by China's state media.
The report in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, said the oil and gas exploration project between Indian and Vietnamese state-owned firms west of the disputed Spratly islands put at risk the two countries' relations with their chief trading partner.
"Two sections enter waters under China's jurisdiction, constituting a violation of China's sovereignty," it said.
The report said that if Vietnam and India pursued any joint interest that damaged relations with China "as well as the stability and peaceful economic development of the entire South China Sea region, the losses will outweigh the gains".
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Monday that any such project was "illegal and invalid" without China's consent, but did not name specific countries or companies.
India's foreign office said last week that Indian companies, including ONGC Videsh (OVL) and Essar Oil subsidiary Essar Exploration and Production Limited, were expanding energy cooperation with Vietnam.
India has sought to increase its involvement in the region, and an Indian navy vessel was challenged off Vietnam's Nha Trang port earlier this year by a radio caller claiming to be from China's navy.
Analysts also say India's increased engagement with Vietnam is partly in response to Chinese projects boosting Beijing's presence in South Asia, particularly in port construction.
Both India and Vietnam have fought brief border wars with China -- India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979 -- but relations are now more stable. However, Hanoi and Beijing are locked in a tussle over ownership of parts of the South China Sea.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan all have conflicting claims in the South China Sea. China's claim is the biggest, based on what it says is indisputable sovereignty since ancient times.
In May and June, Vietnam accused Chinese vessels of harassing Vietnamese ships within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. China denied that its ships had done anything wrong.
Businessmen and diplomats say China has pressured foreign firms in deals with Vietnam not to develop oil blocks.
In 2007, BP Plc halted plans to explore off Vietnam's southern coast due to the dispute between Hanoi and Beijing.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi, in a statement on Monday, said such joint projects were "within the sovereign rights and jurisdictional rights of Vietnam".
Any view opposing cooperation on Vietnam's continental shelf and within its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic, was "completely devoid of legal basis and worthless".
China and Vietnam agreed to speed up negotiations towards ending the South China Sea spat, Chinese media said after the country's top diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, visited Hanoi in early September.
In 2002, member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, urging claimant states to avoid activities that might escalate tension. (Additional reporting by Manoj Kumar in NEW DELHI and John Ruwitch in HANOI; Editing by Ron Popeski)