Foreign Policy Blogs

Waters Heat Up Again in South China Sea

Vietnamese fishermen return after surviving a gun attack by a foreign boat on September 11, 2015. Photo: Dinh TuyenVietnamese fishermen return after surviving a gun attack by a foreign boat on September 11, 2015. Photo: Dinh Tuyen

Local fishermen in the South China Sea have long gone unprotected when fishing in their own waters or in waters claimed by other countries. But this may soon change, following attacks this year on Vietnamese fishing boats.  On September 11, a group of fishing vessels off the southern Vietnamese province of Kien Giang, were fired upon by a Thai Coast Guard vessel, leaving one fisherman dead and two others injured.  Vietnamese authorities claim the shooting incident occurred in Vietnamese waters that border those of Malaysia while Thai authorities claim the incident took place 45 kilometers off their shore.

Local Vietnamese media reported the Thai ship consisted of six crew members who proceeded to detain the captain of one of the Vietnamese boats. The Thai vessel then chased a pair of fishing boats, warning them in Vietnamese, “the Vietnamese ships are required to stop or you will be shot dead”. 

Shortly thereafter, the Thai vessel fired upon one of the boats for 15 minutes, injuring the captain.  Afterward, it chased another fishing vessel, reportedly shooting at it for 10 minutes.  Another pair of Vietnamese fishing boats were also fired upon for 15 minutes.  One of the captains of a local boat, Ngo Van Sinh, died in his cabin, while another was released before the Thai patrol boat fled the waters.  The same Thai boat has been accused by local fishermen of firing on four Vietnamese boats over the past two months, with one fisherman dying last month after being shot while fishing off of Kien Giang province.

Vietnamese fishermen have also been attacked in recent months by Chinese naval vessels near the Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands, which are claimed by both Vietnam and China.  On June 19, a Vietnamese fishing boat operating off the Hoang Sa archipelago was boarded by a Chinese crew, which destroyed its fishing gear and confiscated an ICOM walkie-talkie, a positioning system, and about five metric tons of catch worth US$13,780.  

Previously, on June 10, four ships surrounded a Vietnamese fishing boat and then forcefully boarded it, forcing the 11 Vietnamese fishermen to transfer all of their catch – about six metric tons – to the other vessels.  Also, two fish detectors, a positioning system, an ICOM walkie-talkie, five tanks of oil, and diving clothes were taken from the fishing boat.

As a result of these attacks, the Vietnamese government now plans to allow its coast guard to employ weapons to help chase away foreign vessels which have illegally entered Vietnam’s waters.  The rule is expected to start being implemented on October 20, but comes with a warning for Vietnamese fishermen to obey the laws of the sea:

“Given such attacks, we once again advise that local fishermen absolutely comply with the sea-related laws and regulations of Vietnam and its neighbors to avoid regrettable losses of their lives and property as well as not to cause damage to the diplomatic ties between Vietnam and other countries,” said Colonel Tran Quoc Lap, vice commander of the provincial Headquarters of Border Guard.

Hanoi’s authorization for use of force and a plan to augment its coast guard patrol capabilities means Vietnam (and its neighbors) are taking these threats seriously.  Japan has agreed to supply Vietnam with 200 million yen (US$1.6 million) in non-refundable aid to buy used Japanese patrol ships and to conduct joint search and rescue exercises at sea.  The U.S. has already provided Vietnam with five patrol vessels and has pledged to contribute more in the future.  And the Philippines expects to boost defense ties by signing a strategic partnership agreement with Vietnam by the end of this year.

Given the propensity of local fishermen to follow the catch and pay little attention to maritime boundaries, another confrontation is likely.  The recent spate of attacks on Vietnamese fishermen in the disputed waters of the South China Sea is unlikely to cease, and a more serious and deadly clash may well take place.  Unfortunately, given the various overlapping claims on waters and pledges of allegiances in the region, China may step up its aggression in order to save face and enforce its claims, while the U.S. may well be dragged into the conflict to defend its allies in the South China Sea.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666