Trouble in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone: Chinese Sink Vietnamese Fishing Vessel, Sparks Outrage

Japan Disputed IslandsVietnam and China traded barbs over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, their most serious bilateral standoff since 2007 as China asserts its claims in the disputed South China Sea.

“It was rammed by a Chinese boat,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said by phone of the Vietnamese vessel, with the crew of 10 rescued after the scrap. The incident occurred after some 40 Chinese fishing vessels encircled a group of Vietnamese boats in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, the government in Hanoi said in a statement on its website.

China said the Vietnamese vessel capsized after it rammed a Chinese fishing boat, having intruded into a “precautionary area” around an oil rig that China has located near islands claimed by both Vietnam and China.

“We once again urge the Vietnamese side to stop immediately all kinds of disruptive and damaging activities and avoid in particular dangerous actions on the sea,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.

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China’s 2012 success in assuming control of the Scarborough Shoal, an area previously overseen by the Philippines, highlighted to nations from Vietnam to Japan the potential consequences of the Chinese push to assert claims in neighboring bodies of water. Yesterday’s incident came after Chinese aircraft flew close to Japanese planes on May 24 in disputed airspace in the East China Sea, and days before U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visits Singapore for a regional meeting of defense officials.

‘Sending a Message’

“The message China is sending Vietnam is, this area of water is Chinese territory,” Ha Hoang Hop, visiting senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said by phone of the boat sinking. “Yesterday a spokesman for China said Vietnam’s claims are ‘ridiculous.’ They are escalating things at sea and with their language.”

China’s placement of the rig near the contested Paracel Islands sparked violent protests in Vietnam this month and led China to send ships to evacuate workers from the country after three Chinese nationals were killed. It spurred confrontations between coast guard vessels, including the use of water cannons and accusations of boats being rammed. China says the rig is in its territory and that it has long drilled in the area.

Vietnam has “insisted on disturbing the normal operation by the Chinese side and taken dangerous actions on the sea,” Qin said, adding that Vietnamese actions will hurt their own interests. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said it lodged a protestVietnam’s Foreign Ministry said it lodged a protest with the Chinese Embassy over the sinking.

China’s ‘Lifeline’

China is devoted to promoting peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea through direct negotiation with the countries concerned, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said in Beijing today, according to Xinhua News Agency.

“Being the lifeline for China at sea, the South China Sea is far more important to China than to other countries,” Xinhua cited Liu as saying.

The tensions come as China’s President Xi Jinping expands the country’s naval reach to back its claims in the South China Sea that are based on a “nine-dash line” map, first published in 1947. That map runs hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo.

China’s dispute with Vietnam was one of the most popular political topics on China’s heavily censored social media platforms today, with users defending China’s actions during the incident over the fishing boat.

“Should we continue to swallow insult and humiliation silently?,” a commenter identified as Trivial Passenger said of Vietnam’s claims. “These are naked abuses and insults.”

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