A suspected maritime enforcement team from China boarded two fishing trawlers from Vietnam, assaulted the crew and confiscated their catch and equipment in the disputed South China Sea, one of the trawler captains and reports said Wednesday, in the latest territorial row between the two nations.
The July 7 incident occurred near the Paracel islands, which both nations lay claim to, and follows allegations by Hanoi that a Chinese navy vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat at the end of last month, prompting calls from lawmakers in Hanoi for stronger government action to protect fishermen.
Vo Minh Vuong, the owner and captain of one of the two trawlers, said that a Chinese “white boat with the code number 306” began to chase the vessels when they were fishing around Phu Lam Island, part of the disputed Paracel chain.
Vuong, 38, said they tried to flee, but the boat believed to be from the China Marine Surveillance unit, a paramilitary maritime law enforcement agency, deployed a motorized dinghy with “five or six people on board” and caught up with his trawler.
“Two people jumped into my boat and used batons to force us into the front, making us kneel and bow down,” Vuong told RFA’s Vietnamese Service, adding that the boarding party “spoke Chinese.”
“They wore dark blue uniforms like those worn by the fishing surveillance force … I did not understand them but they gestured to me …. [indicating that] if anyone tried something, there would be consequences and they would get hurt.”
An additional three or four people then boarded his trawler and guarded the crew while the white boat, which had deployed the dinghy, caught up to them.
“They destroyed things in our boat and took away everything,” Vuong said.
The raiding party also attacked the other fishing trawler several hours later, damaging it and rendering it inoperable, he said.
“They ordered us to tow [the other boat] back to Vietnam.”
When Vuong refused, the boarding party forced the two trawlers to anchor off Phu Lam Island.
“After that, they chopped down the two flagpoles in my boat and threw them in the water. I jumped down to fetch the flags and they beat me until I passed out,” he said.
“Then they … told us to go back to Vietnam.”
Vuong said that the Chinese boarding party confiscated all of his trawler’s equipment and around 1 ton of catch.
On the way home, he encountered another Vietnamese vessel and used its radio to inform authorities, who he said began an investigation into the incident upon his return to harbor on July 9.
Vietnam routinely complains about Chinese attacks on its fishing vessels.
Last month, the two countries agreed to set up a hotline to resolve fishing incidents in the disputed South China Sea, nearly all of which and its island groups are claimed by Beijing. Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries claim some areas in the vast sea.
Vietnam’s official Dat Viet newspaper reported on Tuesday that an “unknown armed boat” had chased the two trawlers and that the boarding party had used “firearms” to detain the two crews.
It said the estimated loss to Vuong’s trawler was 400 million dong (U.S. $18,800), while the other boat suffered losses of approximately 200 million dong (U.S. $9,400).
Dat Viet quoted Lt.-Col. Nguyen Van Thanh, vice chief of the Ly Son coast guard, as saying that authorities had confirmed that the two trawlers were damaged and robbed, and that the fishermen had been beaten. Thanh said the cases had been referred to higher level officials.
The state-run Tuoi Tre news agency reported that the Chinese attackers used hammers to destroy anchor ropes and air hose reels, and broke the cabin windows of Vuong’s trawler, adding that they then stole navigation equipment and more than 3,000 liters (790 gallons) of oil.
It said the attackers had also beaten Cuong’s crew, damaged his trawler, and stole more than two tons of fish, as well as navigating tools.
Vuong told RFA that the attack was not the first encounter he had with Chinese assailants while fishing around the Paracels.
“I have been doing this for 20 years and I’ve lost some boats before to the Chinese. I was even jailed in China twice,” he said.
He said that his trawler, which cost him more than 1 billion Vietnamese dong (U.S. $47,000), had been funded partly by the government and partly through loans provided by friends and family members.
“I still owe about 900 million dong (U.S. $42,400). Now I am waiting for help from the government,” he said.
“I’ve run into problems so many times, but I continue to go to the Hoangsa (Paracel) Islands. Now I’m hoping for the government’s support so I can continue doing my job at sea.”
Protests and policies
Vietnamese activists have become increasingly vocal in protests over Chinese claims to the Spratly and Paracel island chains—two archipelagos which are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
But Hanoi is wary that the gatherings could incubate broader criticism against the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party, which has come under fire of late for economic mismanagement, corruption, and the restriction of free speech.
Last month around 150 people protested in Hanoi calling on the government to take a stronger stance against “aggressive” Chinese policies.
Reported by Gia Minh for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.