On Saturday, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials stated that they were investigating the sinking of a fishing boat last week in the South China Sea. The boat in question sank near the Paracel Islands, which are disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
On Friday, a Vietnamese official had spoken to reporters on the condition of anonymity and stated that Vietnam believed the vessel was sunk after being rammed by a Chinese vessel. According to Vietnamese press reports cited by the Associated Press, the crewmembers of the Vietnamese vessel, which capsized before sinking, were rescued after two hours by another Vietnamese boat.
The vessel sank near Discovery Reef, a Vietnam-administered feature in the Paracel group, known as Da Loi Island in Vietnamese. China took control of much of the Paracel Islands in 1974 and the country’s largest South China Sea military facility is located on Woody Island in the island group.
“Vietnamese authorities are continuing to clarify the cause of the incident,” the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
The Communist Party of China’s official newspaper People’s Daily reported a different set of events, underscoring that a Chinese vessel had responded to a distress call from a Vietnamese fishing vessel. That report noted that the vessel was found sunk at the site. The Chinese report also noted that, according to a spokesperson at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China had sent a rescue vessel to assist the Vietnamese fishing crew.
China has laid claim to some 90 percent of the South China Sea under its nine-dash line claim. Alongside China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also maintain claims in the area. Indonesia, meanwhile, is not a claimant to any island or rock features in the South China Sea, but has faced off with China over the delimitation of its maritime exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Sea with China’s own claims.
China and Vietnam have faced off in the South China Sea in recent years. In 2014, China sparked a major row between the two countries when it moved an oil exploration rig into waters claimed by both countries. The oil rig incident led to a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam at the time, which saw large-scale protests.
China administers its claims in the South China Sea through an expansive fleet of “maritime militia” vessels, which are nominally civilian fishing and other commercial vessels that nonetheless serve the ends of the Chinese government in the region. Additionally, Chinese maritime law enforcement and naval vessels operate in the area.