Headed for rough seas

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Belligerent China could "˜snap' and take East Sea tensions to a whole new level, experts say

Sailor Pham Quang Thanh (L) sits in his damaged fishing boat, which was allegedly attacked by Chinese boats in the disputed East Sea, in Vietnam's Ly Son Island on March 27. Vietnam has accused China of opening fire on a fishing boat in the East Sea and burning down its cabin, charges denied by Beijing on Tuesday as tensions resurface over sovereignty in the energy-rich waters. 

Being chased away by a Chinese ship was not a novel experience for Bui Van Phai and his crew, although they knew they were in Vietnamese waters. 

They were resigned to this level of belligerence, but this time the Chinese took it further.

On March 20, a Chinese naval ship fired flares at four Vietnamese vessels fishing near the Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands and set one ablaze before leaving, said Phai, the 25-year-old captain of the damaged vessel from Ly Son Island in the central province of Quang Ngai.

"They have never been that aggressive over the past decade," Phai, who has put out to sea since he was 13, told Vietweek on the phone.

Phai is not the only Ly Son islander to have been harrassed near Hoang Sa by the Chinese over the years. Hundreds of Vietnamese fishing boats and their crew have had to suffer China's increasingly aggressive patrols around the disputed islands in the minerals and resource-rich East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea.

Phai says he will set out to sea again, as he has always done, but the stakes have been raised in the long-standing dispute, experts say.

"I think the tension has elevated recently," said Mark Valencia, an expert on the dispute in Hawaii. "We are approaching flashpoints for military clashes," he said.

Vietnam on Monday condemned China for firing flares at its fishing boats, calling it a "very serious"  violation of its sovereignty. China has shrugged off accusations that the Vietnamese ship had been damaged, saying the response  was "appropriate" and "reasonable".

The Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement issued Tuesday that sailors on board a Chinese navy craft fired two flares at four Vietnamese boats that had earlier failed to respond to whistles, shouts and flag signals demanding that they cease fishing and leave the area, AP reported.

But Phai maintained that he and his crew had neither heard nor seen any such warning signs from the Chinese ship before it approached them.

The fact that a Chinese navy ship had fired flares at a Vietnamese civilian fishing boat is "worrying", analysts said.

"This action was dangerous and a disproportionate response," said Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

"As long as the waters around the Paracel Islands remain in dispute, China should treat Vietnamese fishermen humanely," he said.

The latest incident shows that tensions over the archipelago and surrounding waters are most likely to keep simmering.

Vietnam has slammed China for a raft of activities that it has undertaken to stake out its claims in the Sansha garrison, part of the Paracel Islands. Though the population of Sansha city, known in English as Woody Island, is no more than a few thousand, mostly fishermen, its administrative responsibility covers China's vast claims in the East Sea and its myriad mostly uninhabited atolls and reefs.

The Vietnamese government has since January 25 also beefed up sea patrols to stop foreign vessels from violating Vietnamese waters. The move followed 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.

Last November, China irked its neighbors by issuing six million new passports with 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 passports.

Analysts say that with monsoon season now over, fishing boats will go out to sea in larger numbers, and this usually leads to "incidents" involving trawlers from the Southeast Asian claimants, mostly Vietnam and the Philippines, and Chinese patrol boats. The incident between the Vietnamese trawler and a Chinese vessel will probably be the first of many over the coming months, they say.

"That the Chinese vessel is alleged to have opened fire on the Vietnamese boat might signal that China intends to pursue a tougher line towards the Southeast Asian claimants this year," said Ian Storey, a security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

No letup

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 East Sea 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.

The waters hold around 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proven and probable reserves, Reuters reported, citing the US Energy Information Administration.

Both observers and "neutral" countries have for years recommended resource sharing or joint development as the best way forward in the dispute. But analysts say a necessary precondition for successful joint development is clarification of territorial claims something that Vietnam and China have both been reluctant to do.

"Given the complexity of the various overlapping claims, it's difficult to see how a win-win solution can be found in the South China Sea for as long as sovereignty ties the claimants to inflexible positions," said Euan Graham, a maritime expert at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

In a sign of China's increasing military assertiveness at home and abroad, it announced earlier this month a 10.7 percent increase in annual defense spending to 740.6 billion yuan ($119 billion), Reuters reported.

Though experts and observers have ruled out a military conflict at least in the near future in the region, they also see no likelihood of any abatement in tensions over territorial claims, particularly given China's increased aggression.

In January, the Philippines upped the stakes in its maritime territorial dispute with China by announcing it was taking the case to an international tribunal.

The US, meanwhile, has reiterated its "pivot" towards the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region, a move China perceives as an attempt to contain its rise. The election of the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expectedly failed to ease tensions over a seperate dispute China has with Japan in the East China Sea.

"I worry that China is going to snap back at somebody and the rivalries will move to a higher and more dangerous level," said Valencia, the Hawaii-based expert.

"I see the situation and the transition into political and eventually real war as a slide, not a fall until the very end."

No choice

Meanwhile, Phai, the Vietnamese fisherman, is getting ready to go on his next fishing trip, probably next month.

"I have no choice but to go out to sea. It's not only because fishing is my sole meal ticket," he said.

"Hoang Sa is flesh and blood of Vietnam and of all fishermen like me."

In 1974, taking advantage of the withdrawal of the American troops from the Vietnam War, China invaded the Paracel Islands. A brief but bloody naval battle with the forces of the then US-backed Republic of Vietnam ensued.

Vietnam's behemoth northern neighbor has illegally occupied the islands ever since. But a post-1975 united Vietnam has never relinquished its ownership of the Paracel Islands and continues to keep military bases and other facilities on the Spratly Islands.

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Phai reiterated that his fishing trips have to do with something even more important that earning his livelihood.

"If we stop going out there, one day the rest of the world will think that Hoang Sa is China's [territory]."

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