Fishermen between the devil and the deep blue sea

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Fishermen collect fish from a net at a fishing port in Vietnam's central Ly Son Island. Hundreds of Vietnamese fishermen and their crews have fallen prey to China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the East Sea and mounting tensions in the troubled waters are raising the stakes, analysts said.

They seized and damaged his vessel, threw him in jail, and beat him senseless almost every day.

This has happened four times since 2004, Mai Phung Luu, a Vietnamese from Ly Son Island in the central province of Quang Ngai, said referring to his arrest by Chinese forces.

They could be at it again, but he is ready to face it.

Luu is not the only Ly Son islander to have been arrested near the Paracels (Hoang Sa) and Spratlys (Truong Sa) by the Chinese 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.

Though Luu has no choice but set out to sea again, mounting tensions in the troubled waters are raising the stakes, analysts said.

"China will be unrelenting in trying to stake out its claims," Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - are embroiled in sovereignty disputes over the East Sea.

China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 1.7 million square kilometers.

Though this has been emphatically rejected by the other claimants and independent experts, analysts warn that Beijing is unlikely to back down from its expansive claims in the region, stretching from the eastern Himalayas to the East Sea.

The territorial claims are fueled partly by nationalist fervor, but even more by China's apparent belief that there is a growing power disparity between itself and its neighbors.

Vietnam Tuesday condemned China for several "wrongful acts" it has committed recently to assert what it considers its territorial claims.

On Monday (December 3) Vietnam's state-owned oil and gas company PetroVietnam accused Chinese boats of sabotaging an exploration operation by severing a seismic cable being towed behind its ship, the Binh Minh 02.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokesman lambasted the cable cutting and some recent Chinese provincial rules that consider the Spratly and Paracel islands as China's and a map that does the same thing.

"The actions of the Chinese side have seriously infringed on Vietnam's sovereignty over the two archipelagos," Luong Thanh Nghi said in a statement.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry vehemently protested these actions and demanded that China respect Vietnam's sovereignty and immediately stop such wrongful acts.

The Vietnamese government has announced that from January 25 it would beef up sea patrols to stop foreign vessels from violating laws in Vietnamese waters.

The announcement came on the heels of China announcing rules that allow police in its southern island province of Hainan to board and seize control of foreign ships "illegally" entering what the country considers its territorial waters in the East Sea.

"This is pointed at neighboring countries whose intrusions mainly around the Paracels are serious... In recent years more and more Vietnamese fishing boats have intruded into Paracel waters, and this is one aspect," Wu Shicun, head of Hainan's foreign affairs office, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Last week China irked its neighbors by issuing six million new passports that include a map showing almost all of the East Sea and disputed border areas as Chinese territory. Vietnam, the Philippines, and India have all refused to stamp the controversial Chinese passports.

These moves have not only worsened the already serious friction between China and the other claimants, but also sowed worries among other non-claimants such as India and Singapore.

The two said boarding and seizing control of foreign ships could cause disruption to shipping and have a bearing on oil exploration in the resource-rich and strategically important waters.

The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.

Besides it is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and straddles key shipping lanes through which more than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes.

But some analysts have sought to allay concerns over the new Chinese rules.

"China is announcing the making of domestic laws or regulations to implement the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea (UNCLOS)," Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the dispute, said.

"If a ship violates any of those "¦ regulations in another country's territorial sea," the violations can be regulated and punished, he said.

"Passage is not innocent if certain rules are broken. However, seizure is not allowed."

UNCLOS, to which China and Vietnam are signatories, allows a nation with sovereignty over an island to claim a surrounding 12-nautical mile area. The convention also gives the signatory the right to exploit resources in its 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

But Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to a so-called nine-dash line that takes in about 90 percent of the East Sea.

This vague boundary was first published in a map by China's Nationalist government in 1947, and has been included in subsequent maps.

Analysts said, given all the ambiguity about the nine-dash line, what remains to be seen is over what area the Hainan police would exercise their authority.

"What to watch for is if China starts arresting and expelling fishing boats from around Spratly Islands claimed by others - that will definitely be an aggressive salami step," Valencia said.

Stoking tensions

India declared Monday it is ready to deploy naval vessels to the East Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests there, a new source of tension in the disputed area, Reuters reported.

The PetroVietnam seismic vessel had been operating outside the Gulf of Tonkin when the cable was severed on November 30. It had earlier been surveying the Nam Con Son basin further south, an area where Indian state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) has a stake in a Vietnamese gas field, Reuters said.

"When the requirement is there, for example, in situations where our country's interests are involved, for example ONGC... we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that," Indian navy chief Admiral D.K Joshi was quoted by the newswire as saying.

India has said it has legitimate interests in freedom of navigation, open sea lanes of communication, and resource exploitation. India's trade with East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN) is now greater than with the EU or US.

"The South China Sea is now as important to India's economic and military security as the Indian Ocean is to China's economic growth and security," Mohan Malik, an Asian security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said.

"India's naval presence, along with the US's, should serve to make China act soberly and provide succor to China's small neighbors."

But the Indian engagement in the waters has also raised hackles from skeptics who objected to further militarization of the East Sea.

"The deployment of Indian naval vessels in the South China Sea would be a most unhelpful development," Sam Bateman, a maritime expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said. "Its engagement in the region would only serve to fuel Chinese perceptions of strategic containment by the US, Japan, and India."

Since US President Barrack Obama announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region late last year, the US has maintained it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute. But critics say the US "pivot" toward Asia in foreign and defense policy has already rattled the region and increased tensions between the two superpowers. China perceives the US move as an attempt to contain its rise.

Bateman said the "maritime and economic interests" of India in the South China Sea comprise sea lines of communication. But he added he would question the validity of this concern as relatively little Indian trade of strategic importance passes through the sea.

India has commercial interests in the form of oil and gas concessions off the coast of Vietnam.

But Bateman said: "Naval protection of exploration and exploitation activities in those concessions would be without precedent and highly confrontational."

Meanwhile, Luu, the Vietnamese fisherman, said he could hardly wait to go on his next trip, probably in February.

For his family, the upcoming trip would not just mean a nerve-racking wait at home.

His daughter Mai Thi Hue, whose husband will also join the trip, said: "I know fishing is our sole meal ticket. But I will feel very worried if my dad and my husband put out to sea again.

"I think they will be killed if they get arrested again."

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