As Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, wrapped up an historic visit to the United States, reports emerged in the Vietnamese press that a Vietnamese fishing boat was pursued and sunk by two Chinese vessels. According to Vietnam’s Tuoitre News, a fishing boat operated by 11 Vietnamese fishermen off the coast of Quang Ngai was intercepted, harassed, and sunk by two Chinese ships in waters off the Paracel archipelago. China and Vietnam dispute the sovereignty of the Paracel Islands. The sinking of this fishing boat comes weeks after China redeployed its Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981) oil rig near disputed waters. That oil rig was at the center of a major dispute between the two South China Sea claimant states last summer.
According to Vietnamese press reports, the Chinese vessels approached the Vietnamese fishing boat and initially used “high-powered lights” and loudspeakers, demanding that the fishermen leave the area. According to Tuoitre, the owner of the fishing boat “ran his ship away, fearing a possible attack, but was run after by the [Chinese] ships, which eventually rammed the fishing boat to sink [sic] at 11:00 p.m.” on Thursday, July 9. According to the report, the fishermen were left “floating at sea while clinging to the lifebuoys,” and were later “rescued and taken ashore after several other Vietnamese fishing boats found them at about 2:00 am on Friday.”
Vietnamese authorities have been closely monitoring such incidents. Two weeks ago, similar reports emerged of Chinese vessels coercing Vietnamese fishermen from Quang Ngai province. Nguyen Thanh Hung, head of a local fisheries union in Quang Ngai, noted back then that the Chinese vessels were military vessels, rather than coastguard or civilian ships. In an incident earlier in June, a Chinese vessel demanded that Vietnamese fishermen hand their catch over as well, causing nearly $25,000 in losses for the fishermen. In last week’s sinking incident, Vietnamese reports did not indicate whether the vessel belonged to the People’s Liberation Army Navy or China’s coastguard.
The flare-up in incidents of Chinese vessels ramming Vietnamese fishing boats in recent weeks has come as Vietnam increases high-level contacts with the United States. In late May, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Vietnam and announced that the U.S. would be extending $18 million to Vietnam to help Hanoi acquire coast guard patrol vessels. Carter’s visit came after the United States announced that it would partially lift its decades-old arms embargo against Hanoi, specifically to help it bolster its ability to safeguard its maritime security. The United States continues not to take a position on the sovereignty of South China Sea features or on the issue of where exclusive economic zones should be delimited, but it is clearly pursuing military rapprochement with Vietnam.