Flares, gunshots, and fires, oh my: The latest South China Sea accusations fly

Vietnam accused China of firing on a fishing boat near the Paracel Islands, something China denies. China claims territorial rights over the entire South China Sea, but several nations dispute this.

Quang Le/Reuters
Vietnamese fishing boats are seen near Da Tay island in the Spratly archipelago in January.

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China has denied Hanoi's accusations that it fired upon a Vietnamese fishing boat last week near the Paracel Islands as "sheer fabrication," and claims that its patrol vessel only fired flares and did not damage the boat.

Beijing said yesterday that despite Vietnamese accusations that the fishing vessel was fired upon and its cabin "burned down" during a confrontation last week near the Paracels, which both China and Vietnam lay claim to, the Chinese patrol vessel's actions were "necessary and legitimate," reports state newspaper the China Daily.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Xisha Islands [the Chinese name for the Paracels] and their adjacent waters, and the Vietnamese fishing boat entered the waters for "illegal fishing operations".

"According to confirmation by relevant parties, no harm was done to the Vietnamese ship at that time and place," Hong said.

An unnamed Chinese navy official goes further, Chinese state news agency Xinhua reports, calling the Vietnamese description of events a "sheer fabrication" that "revealed the ulterior motives of the relevant Vietnamese authorities." 

Staff aboard the Chinese patrolling vessel tried repeatedly to persuade and demand the Vietnamese boats to leave by whistle blowing, shouting and handflag guiding, but all failed.

Then the Chinese vessel fired into the sky two warning signal shells, which burned out and extinguished in the air.

There is no such things [sic] that Chinese vessel fired with weapons or the Vietnamese boats caught fire, said the official.

This is just the latest event in an ongoing dispute between Vietnam and China over islands in the South China Sea. China claims to have historical territorial rights over the entire sea, but Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and several other nations each lay claim to various islands within the region – including the Paracels and the Spratleys, which Vietnam claims.

The Vietnamese government publicized the issue on Monday, saying that the Chinese vessel illegally chased and fired upon the Vietnamese vessel as it fished in what Thanh Nien News called its "traditional fishing grounds" in the Hoang Sa Archipelago, the Vietnamese name for the Paracels.

"This is an extremely serious issue, violating Vietnam's sovereignty over Hoang Sa Archipelago, threatening the lives and damaging properties of Vietnamese fishermen," [Foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi] said.

"This has seriously violated international laws and agreements on basic principles in solving sea issues between Vietnam and China, and is counter to the Declaration of Parties in the [South China] Sea (DOC)."

Radio Free Asia reports that Pham Quang Thanh, the captain of the fishing boat, said that "When we saw the vessel from afar, we left right away. But after about 30 to 40 minutes, they were already right behind us."

“I tried to head east to get away, but they were close to us, and they started shooting at us,” Thanh said.

Thanh then ran inside the boat’s cabin, he said.

“I heard four explosions and found that the boat’s cabin was on fire, and I called everybody to put out the fire with sea water.”

His Chinese attackers had meanwhile left, eventually halting about five or six nautical miles away, he said.

“They just left. They didn’t show any willingness to help, or even to stop to check on us. They wanted to destroy us.”

Citing an earlier news report, Thanh Nien News describes a similar scene, but names the ship captain as Bui Van Phai, who said his boat collided with the Chinese vessel before the chase began.

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