Vietnam has strongly condemned a temporary Chinese ban on fishing in the South China Sea, calling the move a violation of its sovereignty, as the neighboring countries seek to repair ties damaged by Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig to the contested waters a year ago.
The annual May 16-Aug. 1 fishing ban, which threatens violators with confiscations and legal action, was introduced in 1999 “to promote the sustainable development of the fishing industry in the South China Sea and protect the fundamental interest of fishermen,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a report.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh voiced strong protest over the fishing ban, saying the act violated the country’s jurisdiction over the waters under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), according to the state-run Vietnam News.
"Viet Nam vehemently opposes this void decision," Binh said of the ban, which includes the Gulf of Tonkin and the disputed Paracel islands.
Beijing claims sovereignty over nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea, even areas approaching the coasts of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations, based on a 1940s Chinese map with segmented dashes outlining its territory.
But critics say the nine dashes delineate territory that is more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the nearest major Chinese landmass in places, and well within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of neighboring countries.
China dismissed Vietnam’s opposition to the ban Monday, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei saying Beijing “holds a clear and consistent position on the issue of the South China Sea” and implements the ban “to protect living marine resources” in the waters.
Hong called the move “a proper act to fulfill China's international obligation and responsibility.”
China’s deployment in May last year of an oil rig, HD-981, to waters off the Vietnamese coast claimed by both countries prompted a storm of anti-China protests in Vietnam. Beijing withdrew the rig in July, citing bad weather and the completion of exploratory work.
Chinese detentions of Vietnamese fishermen in 2012 and 2014 have also stoked tensions, with both sides accusing the other of ramming vessels during confrontations in the South China Sea.
Ignoring the ban
Tran Van Linh, president of the Fisheries Association in central Vietnam’s port city of Da Nang, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Monday that his organization did not recognize the ban “because our fishermen work in our legal fishing regions, in our EEZ.”
“Our fishermen are continuing to work in the area while remaining vigilant” to avoid confrontations with Chinese boats, he said.
According to Linh, an increasing number of official Chinese vessels “disguised as fishing boats” had been deployed to waters surrounding the Paracels as early as nine days prior to the start of the ban.
“They have chased Vietnamese fishermen working in the area,” he said.
“There hasn’t been a violent incident or theft reported yet. Of course, we saw [the Chinese boats] and tried to avoid them.”
Linh said the Fisheries Association had built two “more powerful” boats to fish near the Paracels and was working on an additional three, adding that Vietnam’s fishermen were in constant contact with the Coast Guard, which had built up its presence in the region since China’s deployment of the HD-981.
Vietnamese fishermen also maintain communication with larger vessels which can determine whether they have entered the EEZ of another nation, or if boats from another country have entered Vietnam’s waters, and notify them accordingly.
“We then form temporary groups in the event of Chinese aggression, so that the Chinese won’t threaten us so easily,” he said.
According to Linh, Vietnam’s fishermen have received an outpouring of support from around the nation over the past year, as well as assistance from the government, which has allowed them to upgrade their equipment and supplies.
“The city of Da Nang also helped us to pay for our insurance and life insurance for the fishermen,” he said.
“It also provided training to our fishermen on boat maneuvers and how to use equipment, in addition to loaning them 300-700 million dong (U.S. $13,800 to $32,100) to build boats.”
A fisherman surnamed Thien, who is based in the Ly Son district of central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, told RFA that despite the assistance, the country’s fishing industry would take a hit from the Chinese ban.
He said that faced with harassment from Chinese vessels, Vietnamese fishermen would be forced to borrow hundreds of millions of dong (tens of thousands of U.S. dollars) to repair their boats or purchase new ones, leaving them in debt.
Thien said he personally anticipated a loss of 3 billion dong (U.S. $137,700) from the ban.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Ninh Pham. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.