Vietnamese troops stand at attention while listening to Philippine military officials before the start of their Friendship Games at Northeast Cay in the disputed East Sea on May 27, 2015. Vietnamese and Philippine troops played soccer and sang karaoke on an East Sea island in May in a sign of the growing security ties between the two Southeast Asian nations most at odds with Beijing over the contested waterway. Photo: Reuters
Vietnam said on Thursday that China had detained 17 Vietnamese fishermen and their two fishing boats, but so far has only released the crews and one vessel.
"Vietnam demands that China immediately and unconditionally release the [other] fishing vessel,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said at a press briefing Thursday.
The Vietnamese embassy in China said June 19 that China had confirmed the arrest of 17 fishermen and two fishing vessels hailing from the north-central province of Quang Binh.
Four Chinese vessels, including a navy one, on June 6 intercepted and captured the Vietnamese boats and their crews as the latter were in waters 10 nautical miles southwest of the coast of China's Hainan Island.
Binh said Thursday that after the incident, the foreign ministry had asked its embassy in Beijing to work with relevant Chinese agencies to demand that they release the fishermen.
All 17 fishermen and one vessel have returned home safely, Binh said.
He said the ministry was also verifying information that the Chinese authorities had compelled the Vietnamese fishermen to sign a document acknowledging China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea.
China routinely outlines the scope of its territorial claims through maps featuring a “nine-dash line” that encircles about 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer resource-rich East Sea. The maps flew in the face of competing claims from four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei -- and drew international condemnation.
The latest arrest came on the heels of Vietnamese allegations that China had attacked its fishermen in three separate incidents in the East Sea since early June.
Vietnam accused China of intercepting its vessels and fishermen, seizing their catch and fishing equipment, and using water cannon to drive away a Vietnamese fishing boat.
On Thursday, Binh, the Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman, also demanded that China halt its massive land reclamation projects in the Spratly islands in the East Sea that has been underway over the past two years and further pitted Beijing against its Asian neighbors.
But the call has appeared to fall on deaf ears, as always.
Chinese Foreign Ministry has said that the reclamation projects on seven reefs and atolls will be completed soon and will follow up with building infrastructure for military and civilian purposes.
Between the devil and deep blue sea
In May, Vietnam protested and dismissed China’s annual two-and-a-half ban on fishing ban in the East Sea, saying violates Vietnam's sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) island chain.
The municipal administration of Haikou in Hainan, China’s southernmost province, on May 16 clamped the annual ban in northern part of the East Sea. The affected areas, stretching to the waters between Guangdong and Fujian provinces, entail the Paracel island chain, which China took from Vietnam by force in 1974 and the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the Spratly Islands China has seized control since 2012, and the Gulf of Tonkin.
The ban, which was introduced in 1999 and will last until August 1, applies to both Chinese and foreign boats fishing in the area.
China has said the ban is aimed at protecting marine resources and promoting environmental awareness among fishermen. That is also China’s “international responsibility and obligation,” its foreign ministry said.
But analysts do not buy into this.
“Like every nation, China has a responsibility under international law to protect he ecological health and fish stocks in its waters, especially migratory fish on which neighboring states also reply. But that obligation is supposed to be fulfilled in consultation with neighbors, not arbitrarily,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Thanh Nien News.
“And it is certainly not within China’s legal rights to enforce a fisheries ban in waters over which there is an active dispute. Even more worrying is that the ban includes at least some of the waters in the Gulf of Tonkin on which China and Vietnam reached a fisheries agreement in 2000,” he said.
Analysts say for the Vietnamese government, ignoring China’s fishing ban and insisting that its fishermen have a right to do so is important because it allows Hanoi to point out that it has consistently objected to, an certainly has never recognized, Chinese jurisdiction in these disputed waters. For Vietnamese fishermen, this is simply a matter of economic necessity.
In July 2014, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung promised to make VND4.5 trillion ($206 million) available to help Vietnamese fishermen build better fishing boats to protect themselves from Chinese attacks and other threats.
But given that hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen and their crews have fallen prey to China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the East Sea over the past years, they are proving yet again extremely vulnerable to future harassment or attacks by the Chinese.
“Why should we expect some new behavior from China?” said Zachary Abuza, a US-based analyst.