Editor’s note: Quynh Trung is a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper journalist based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
In this editorial originally written in Vietnamese and published in the June 15, 2020 issue of the Tuoi Tre daily, he commented on a recent incident where a China Coast Guard vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat and took the fishers’ belongings while they were operating in Vietnamese waters about eight nautical miles southwest of Linh Con Island in Vietnam's Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago on June 10.
Sixteen Vietnamese fishermen who returned to the Sa Ky Port in Quang Ngai Province on June 6 are haunted by memories of their boat being rammed by a Chinese steel vessel within Vietnamese waters in the East Vietnam Sea.
The incident caused damage worth around VND500 million (US$21,500).
Around one year ago, Vietnamese fishermen brought 32 Chinese fellows back to the same port in July 2019 for healthcare checks after the Vietnamese people had saved them from their sinking ship in the Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelago under Vietnam’s sovereignty.
These similar happenings, whose results are completely different, speak volumes.
The 16 Vietnamese fishermen reported that their boat, No. QNg 96416 TS, was hit by the Chinese vessel with hull number 4006, leaving the Vietnamese boat half-submerged in water on June 10.
Four days later, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited preliminary findings from authorities that the steel vessel 4006 and a speedboat of China allegedly approached the Vietnamese fishing boat and caused big waves so that water flowed into the boat, thus placing it in danger of sinking.
It will take more time to investigate the incident, but the findings provided enough grounds to affirm that the acts of the Chinese vessels had endangered the lives of the Vietnamese fishermen.
The behavior must be condemned since it infringes upon Vietnam’s sovereignty and violates the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs), to both of which China is a party.
This is not the first time that Chinese vessels have attacked Vietnamese fishing boats. On April 2, fishing boat No. QNg 90617 TS, which was operating in the waters off Phu Lam Island in Vietnam’s Hoang Sa, was suddenly rammed and sunk by the Chinese coast guard vessel with hull number 4031.
Following the incident, the U.S. Department of State expressed its concerns and stressed that the behavior of China stood in contrast to the United States’ vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded Chinese authorities launch an investigation into the incident, punish severely any civil servants involved, and compensate the Vietnamese fishermen properly.
Why do Chinese vessels frequently threaten and collide with other vessels? The Department of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, a country whose fishermen were victims of China in the past, issued a statement which opposed the Chinese vessel’s attack on the Vietnamese fishing vessel in April 2020 through an implicit message of trust.
The department said, “COVID-19 is a very real threat that demands unity and mutual trust. In the face of it, neither fish nor fictional historical claims are worth the fuse that’s lit by such incidents.”
“Such incidents undermine the potential of a genuinely deep and trusting regional relationship between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China,” according to the department.
Aside from violations of international law, the use of force by Chinese ships also flouted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the East Vietnam Sea and went against the common perceptions of the two countries’ senior leaders on the humane treatment of fishermen.
The ocean is immense, so not only the rules of law but also the people of conscience think about saving human lives first. How is it possible that there are people who deliberately endanger the lives and properties of honest people? Such acts are deemed inhumane.
The number of deliberate vessel collisions has been on the increase. For this reason, the Chinese government cannot be free of blame since these incidents “against the common perceptions” have recurred in a short period of time.
Such fishing vessel attacks are not only condemned for their inhumane nature but also undermine the trust between the two countries, one that is difficult to gain but also easy to lose.