On the early morning of April 2, a Vietnam-flagged fishing boat was spotted by a China Coast Guard vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, to which both China and Vietnam lay territorial claims. During the process of interdiction by the Chinese vessel, the fishing boat sank. Its eight crew members were rescued.
China says it was first to discover, develop, exploit and exercise jurisdiction over the island group, which it calls the Xisha Islands. While both China and Vietnam declare that their sovereignty claims have abundant historical and legal support, Vietnam’s claim is weakened by a diplomatic note in 1958 from its premier, Pham Van Dong, to his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai. It stated that Vietnam supported China’s declaration earlier that year concerning its territorial sea. The declaration identified the Xisha Islands as Chinese territory.
On April 3 China and Vietnam released their official statements on the fishing boat incident. According to a statement by the Chinese Coast Guard spokesperson, the Vietnamese vessel and crew were fishing illegally within Chinese territory when it was spotted. The Coast Guard vessel warned the Vietnamese fishing boat to leave China’s waters, but the warning was ignored. Instead, it rammed the Chinese vessel and capsized. Its eight crew members were immediately rescued.
During the communications between the two countries’ coast guards, the Chinese side protested the Vietnamese fishing activity and arranged the return of the Vietnamese fishermen, which is routine.
At the end of its statement, the Chinese Coast Guard raised the issue of the recent increase of illegal Vietnamese fishing in the waters and urged the Vietnamese side to take responsible measures to prevent a recurrence.
At the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s news conference, a spokeswoman expressed China’s grave concerns about the fishing boats’ frequent infringements on China’s fishing rights and their dangerous resistance to Chinese law enforcement. She further demanded that the Vietnamese side earnestly “inform its fishermen and regulate their fishing activities.”
On the other side, the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry accused the Chinese Coast Guard of violating Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, and causing property losses and endangering the “lives, safety and legitimate interests” of the fishermen.” The ministry lodged an official protest and asked the Chinese side to “investigate the incident,” “strictly discipline” the officers and provide “adequate compensation” to the fishermen.
Interestingly, within a week of the incident, the U.S. State Department, Defense Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy made separate statements condemning China.
The U.S. State Department claimed that China’s recent actions in the South China Sea were designed to “assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors.” It added that China was “exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
The Pentagon’s statement also condemned China’s behavior, and statements from U.S. senators even linked the incident to the COVID-19 pandemic to condemn China for “exploit[ing] the pandemic to erode rule of law.”
Several implications can be drawn from this incident. First, the key issue in the fishing incident is sovereignty over the Paracels — an issue between China and Vietnam. Pending a final settlement of that dispute, incidents involving fishing rights are likely to recur, and if they are not well managed, tensions may escalate.
However, through years of bilateral interaction China and Vietnam have established mechanisms to manage their differences, including emerging ones. The management of this fishing incident will follow the previous trajectory of incident-protest-communication-control. It is unhelpful to exaggerate the importance and ramifications of one incident.
At the same time, both countries need to increase communications — in particular during this period of combat against the COVID-19 pandemic. Mutual trust increases through joint efforts against the same threat.
Second, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing — known as IUU — is a common threat in the region. If such fishing is not halted, scarce fishery resources will be further depleted. The overlapping territorial claims may be a gray zone in which claimant countries may tolerate or even encourage their fishermen by offering incentives to fish in the disputed areas as a demonstration of sovereignty.
Countries in the region need to work together to balance disputes and seek mutual benefits in preserving and encouraging the sustainable use of fisheries before the trend of depletion becomes irreversible.
Third, the statements from the U.S. side demonstrate once again its interventionist tendencies relating to the South China Sea. This time, the U.S. appeared to go further by implicitly taking sides in a sovereignty dispute. Both China and Vietnam lay claim to the Paracels; therefore, one country’s law enforcement activities may be considered by the other as an infringement on sovereignty.
However, for the U.S. — which is not a party to the dispute — to side with Vietnam and condemn China’s behavior as illegal will not be conducive to a peaceful resolution. China’s Coast Guard followed the general procedure of law enforcement in line with domestic law and international practice and not, as some U.S. senators labeled it, “military coercion.”
Finally, at the regional level, this incident demonstrates the importance of some arrangements beyond the national level to curb unregulated fishing in the region. Because of maritime disputes, individual claimant countries tend to emphasize their own interests when issues relating to sovereignty or sovereign rights are involved. Maybe the ongoing consultation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea can offer some arrangements in this regard.