Vietnam has demanded that China reveal the exact location in the simmering East Sea where the latter detained six Vietnamese fishermen and spell out the rationale for doing so as tensions over a Chinese oil rig deployed in Vietnamese waters has shown no sign of letup.
Luong Thanh Quang, a senior official with the Consular Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday the department representatives had met with their counterparts at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi to ask for such information.
On Saturday, the Vietnamese foreign affairs ministry also asked its embassy in Beijing to work with Chinese agencies concerned to verify the information and take necessary measures to protect the fishermen.
A day earlier, China's Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrest, saying the fishermen had "broken the law" by working in Chinese territorial waters 7 nautical miles south of the city of Sanya on Hainan.
But Vietnamese authorities said the arrests took place in disputed waters near the Gulf of Tonkin, which lies off Hainan. The authorities said they had lost contact with the fishermen on Thursday morning, when a crew member radioed authorities to say men from a Chinese vessel had boarded the vessel.
Two Vietnamese fishermen, who were fishing in another boat, managed to flee the Chinese navy vessel and arrived home on an island in the central province of Quang Ngai on Saturday.
The fishermen said the Chinese authorities had pointed guns at them.
“Teo said on the walkie talkie that the Chinese had pointed their guns at the [Vietnamese] fishermen. I told him to slow down to avoid collision, or they would use us ramming at them as an excuse to fire guns and we’re done,” Tran Xi, one of the two returning fishermen, said.
Vo Tan Teo was the captain on the boat that was seized by China Navy when it and several Quang Ngai boats were fishing in the disputed waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. Xi was the captain on one boat that had been sailing side by side with Teo’s.
Meanwhile, distraught family members of the six detained fishermen are praying for their return.
Teo’s mother, Tran Thi May, was still in tears Saturday. She has been crying out for her son after Xi and the other fisherman Nguyen Ngoc Quy returned.
Over the years, hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen and their crews have in fact fallen prey to China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.
But the Thursday arrests were the first since China deployed a giant US$1-billion oil rig into Vietnam’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf on May 2. The rig remains roughly 30 kilometers from the Paracels, which sit inside the East Sea.
The oil rig row sparked ongoing confrontations between vessels near the rig and triggering peaceful anti-China protests that erupted into violence in central and southern Vietnam in mid-May.
The two countries have also traded barbs ever since.
China, which insisted the rig was in its sovereign waters, has accused Vietnam of sending ships to disrupt the rig's operations. Vietnam has maintained that Chinese ships have rammed, sunk and fired water cannons against a fleet of civilian and police vessels attempting to protect their sovereign maritime territory.
For independent analysts, the latest arrests have come as no surprise.
“China will assert sovereignty in waters it claims,” Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst, told Thanh Nien News.
“It's hard to say that this will escalate tensions, as they are already so high,” he said.
“But it is clear that China shows absolutely no willingness to back down and de-escalate the situation.”
Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the so-called nine-dashed line that takes in about 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer East Sea on Chinese maps -- which have been emphatically rejected by international geographers.
China’s claims have pitted it against four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has set aside VND11.5 trillion (US$540 million) to build new coast guard ships in an effort to better protect fishermen amid China's rising aggression in the East Sea. But given the status quo, analysts expect more crackdowns, detentions and harassment of Vietnamese and other third nation fishermen.
“The Chinese are acting with impunity and add additional pressure on Vietnam,” said Carl Thayer, an maritime analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“I hope this is just not the beginning of the concerted efforts by China [to assert] its so-called sovereignty,” Thayer said.