BANKGKOK—Vietnamese authorities have complained to China after Vietnamese fishermen claimed they were beaten and detained by Chinese military personnel after they sought shelter from a storm on a disputed island.
Vietnam’s Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Luong Le Phuong said Vietnamese fishermen had taken shelter on the Paracel Islands after being caught in bad weather.
"The actions [of the Chinese] did not comply with international laws and were unsuitable for good relations between two neighboring countries. A diplomatic note has been sent to China. We hope that such a situation never happens again," Phuong said.
The Paracel Islands have been a source of friction between the two nations for a number of years. Both countries claim sovereignty.
"From the standpoint of friendly relations, we don’t want to get military forces involved. Vietnam loves peace and has no intention to invade any country. But we are determined not to allow anyone to invade us either," Phuong said.
"It has already been decided that the Paracels belong to Vietnam," he said.
Phuong cited an agreement that allows fishermen from each country to seek shelter in its neighbor's territory if they are threatened by storms, but added it would be better to avoid the need.
He suggested that Vietnamese fishing boats should go out in groups and check weather warnings before setting to sea.
"[Boats] should go to sea in groups or fleets...so they might help one another in case of storms or engine trouble. They would also be able to confront foreign forces who might act illegally [towards them]," Phuong said.
But he reminded Chinese authorities that their own fishermen are often uncertain of Vietnam's maritime boundaries.
Claims of abuse
Three fishermen, Duong Van Tho, Truong Minh Quang, and Nguyen Van Bay, say they were mistreated at the hands of the Chinese navy.
The three men were part of a larger group from Vietnam’s central Quang Ngai province that sailed home on Oct. 6 after riding out Typhoon Ketsana on the Paracel Islands.
Tho said imminent danger forced the group to land on the disputed islands on Sept. 27.
“The speed of the storm was too fast to sail home, so we had to take shelter in the Paracels closest to our route. We know the islands belong to Vietnam but are currently occupied by China, but we weren’t afraid because all nations must allow refuge during storms,” Tho said.
Tho said the Chinese navy fired several warning shots from their outpost on the islands as the Vietnamese fishing boats approached. The Chinese also waved to signal that the boats would not be allowed to dock.
“We contacted the [Vietnamese] coast guard, and they told us not to proceed. They said they would send messages [to the Chinese]. The Chinese let us sail in at around 1 p.m.,” Tho said.
Forced to take shelter
The Vietnamese boats were forced to take shelter on the islands until Sept. 30, when the raging storm finally broke.
Tho said that before they were allowed to leave, Chinese soldiers searched their boats and took away their navigational equipment.
“When we were let out, Chinese soldiers came aboard to search our boats. They took things like fishing and communication equipment. They took it all. I had no equipment on my boat. Then we just sailed home. The rest of the group lost a lot [of equipment],” Tho said.
Tho said that several fishermen tried to hide equipment and personal belongings from the Chinese soldiers, but were beaten when the items were discovered.
He said those wearing jewelry, such as gold rings and necklaces, were threatened and made to turn the items over.
“Nothing happened to me, but I saw it on the other boats. For instance, the Chinese were using their fists and kicking people to threaten them,” Tho said.
“Later on the shore when I asked [my friends] why they were threatened, they said they hid things and were beaten when [the Chinese] realized they had them but wouldn’t hand them over,” he said.
Quang, owner of boat QNG-90078, said his crew was beaten and had all of their possessions taken.
“They came on board and took away everything. Generally speaking, they were choking people and doing other frightening things,” Quang said.
“They took all of the equipment we needed for work, leaving just one compass to help us sail home. But they didn’t take away our drinking water or rice."
Bay, owner of boat QNG-5012 said his crew faced a similar experience when he was forced to take refuge from the storm on Sept. 28.
“There were 17 boats from Binh Son and Ly Son districts seeking shelter from the typhoon. Another three were from Binh Chau,” Bay said.
“My boat and Nguyen Minh Quang’s boat were completely robbed of electronic and communication equipment,” he said, adding that oil had also been stolen.
Bay said one crewman, Nguyen Van Chanh, was beaten by Chinese soldiers who came aboard.
Call for support
After the fishermen returned to Vietnam, they say they unsuccessfully petitioned local authorities for support.
Nguyen Viet Thang, chairman of the Vietnam Fishery Association, called the reported mistreatment “unacceptable.” Thang said his organization will lodge an official protest with China over the incident.
Tensions connected with sovereignty over three archipelagos in the South China Sea, including the Paracel Islands, have risen since May, when regional governments submitted their territorial claims to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The disputed islands, which are extremely valuable to the fishing, oil, and natural gas industries, are claimed by Vietnam, China, and several other Southeast Asian nations.
In Vietnam, thousands of demonstrators, mostly university students, gathered in late 2007 near the Chinese diplomatic missions in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to protest China's policy toward the islands.
Although Vietnam's communist government opposes China's policy in the Paracels, it seeks to maintain friendly relations with its powerful northern neighbor and has punished Vietnamese citizens for speaking out about the dispute.
Original reporting by Viet Ha and Khanh An for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Vietnamese service director: Diem Nguyen. Translated by Viet Nguyen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.