Quantcast
Latest Stories

Asia’s fishermen caught in escalating sea tensions

By

LY SON ISLAND, Vietnam–When gun-toting Chinese guards spotted Tran Hien’s unarmed wooden fishing boat in disputed waters, they seized his vessel, detained his crew and threw him in jail.

For generations the Vietnamese islanders of Ly Son have braved typhoons and other dangers to bring home fish, but now they also have to contend with patrols sent by Beijing to assert its territorial claims.

Swept along by nationalist sentiment, and forced to venture ever further out to sea to fill its nets, Asia’s fishing fleet is increasingly on the frontline of escalating territorial tensions in the region.

In recent years, China has begun aggressively patrolling around the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea — known in Vietnam as the East Sea — using fishing bans and patrol boats to keep foreign trawlers out, according to Vietnamese officials and fishermen.

“They had guns. They trained them on us, forced us to the front of the boat, then they boarded and arrested us,” said Tran Hien, who was detained in March along with his 10-man crew near the Paracel Islands and held for 49 days.

“My first son was born when I was in the Chinese prison,” the 33-year-old boat captain said. “They took my nets, my GPS and I am now heavily in debt.”

Hien’s story is far from unusual — he and his men were held alongside the crew of another Vietnamese boat that was detained the same day. Both captains were beaten and “there was never enough food” for the 21 sailors, he said.

Hanoi says hundreds of fishing boat crews have been arrested near the Paracels and Spratlys by Chinese authorities over the last few years.

With coastal areas depleted by overfishing, the ever-growing ranks of fishermen from Ly Son — located 30 kilometers (20 miles) east of mainland Vietnam — rely on trips to the disputed archipelagos to net valuable hauls of anchovies, tuna and butterfish.

– Pawns in a maritime battle –

Hanoi claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the island chains, known locally as Truong Sa and Hoang Sa, which are several hundred kilometres off the coasts of both Vietnam and China.

And Hanoi uses the fishermen, at least indirectly, to assert sovereignty claims — rejecting any Chinese efforts to limit its trawlers, such as Beijing’s annual fishing ban.

“Our government encourages us to fish in the Paracels and Spratlys as there are a lot of fish there and it has been our fishing field for many years,” Le Khuan, 52, told AFP at his small house on Ly Son Island.

Other regional countries have policies encouraging offshore fishing to relieve pressure on coastal areas and increase their presence in their territorial waters, said a senior fishery officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“Of course, in disputed areas this means greater contact with other countries,” Simon Funge-Smith told AFP, adding that it was also putting “considerable pressure” on fish stocks and increasing competition between often-subsidised national fleets.

Beijing has occupied the Paracels, known as Xisha in Chinese, since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974, and also claims the Spratlys — as do, in whole or in part, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.

Beijing claims as its historical territory virtually all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves as well as being home to important fishing grounds.

With more Chinese patrol boats and fishermen of all nationalities on the waters and diplomatic tensions over disputed islands running high, observers warn that an escalation is possible.

“There is a real risk… of an overreaction on either side — a fishing boat being fired upon by a patrol vessel,” said Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Both Hanoi and Beijing “have become much more nationalistic in response to their sovereignty claims,” he added.

Growing patriotic sentiment would also make it hard for either side to back down, with governments forced into “tit for tat” exchanges, he said.

Filipino fishermen have also complained of intimidation from rifle-brandishing Chinese personnel near the Scarborough Shoal, about 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the Philippine coast.

Rival claims flared into a major diplomatic dispute in April when Manila accused Chinese fishermen of taking endangered species, such as clams and corals, from the area.

Philippine efforts to arrest the fishermen were thwarted when two Chinese surveillance vessels arrived at the scene.

And last month South Korea’s coastguard detained 23 Chinese fishermen in the Yellow Sea after a violent clash that left one Chinese crew member dead.

– Arrest by China ‘the biggest fear’ –

The small fishing communities on Ly Son Island are shocked to find themselves at the centre of an international dispute for simply fishing where they have for generations, a local government official said.

“Fishermen here consider the fishing fields of Truong Sa and Hoang Sa their gardens, their rice fields,” Pham Hoang Linh told AFP in an interview in a yellow, peeling government building on the island as loudspeakers boomed out one of Hanoi’s routine, twice-daily propaganda announcements.

He said arrest by China is “the worst fear” of the families of the some 3,000 fishermen on the island, as without the income from fishing — typically between about $100 and $250 a trip — many islanders risk destitution.

“We try to educate our fishermen to avoid conflict. But we are operating in our own fishing fields so there is no reason to be scared,” Linh, a Ly Son native himself, told AFP.

Unless a solution is found, further confrontations appear inevitable as the fishermen of Ly Son say they will keep plying the disputed waters.

“It is our only source of income. It is our territory, our waters — we will protect our sovereignty, we will keep on fishing,” said Khuan.


Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter


west philippine sea

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: China , East Sea , Paracel Islands , Scarborough shoal , Spratlys , Territorial dispute




Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
Advertisement
  1. Kim Henares needs a reprimand, says Cayetano
  2. ‘No real progress in PH if dynasties not dismantled’
  3. More legal woes for Cedric Lee
  4. Massive infra spending set
  5. OFW brings MERS virus to Philippines
  6. DOJ to NBI: Arrest Cedric Lee, 4 others
  7. Cardinal Tagle to faithful: Join politics to clean it
  8. Estrada, Gigi Reyes denied access to evidence from other respondents
  9. Lacson’s wife loses diamond earring to thieves but recovers jewelry quickly with police arrest
  10. DOJ orders arrest of Cedric Lee
  1. Suspect in Vhong Navarro mauling tries to leave PH
  2. MH370 co-pilot made mid-flight phone call – report
  3. Netizens cry: 6/55 Lotto was rigged
  4. I’ll follow my conscience on Estrada, says JV Ejercito
  5. ‘Wife of Jesus’ theory papyrus not fake – Harvard study
  6. Fr. Suarez says last Mass on Easter before returning donated land to San Miguel
  7. Gay college instructor arrested for oral sex with student
  8. ‘King’ Yabut and I: Driver bares Makati dad ‘abuses’
  9. It was difficult having Japanese blood
  10. Palace: We can’t blame increase in population on Vitangcol
  1. KL confirms Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 ended in Indian Ocean
  2. MRT passengers pass the hat for 6-year-old Ashley
  3. Pork payoffs to newscasters Erwin Tulfo, Del Prado, others bared
  4. UP back on top as ‘average’ student aces bar
  5. Rookie, lady cops lauded for quick response to MOA heist
  6. Model Helena Belmonte wished ‘to slash her wrist and hope to die’
  7. Malaysia averts another air tragedy; pilot lands troubled plane safely
  8. Revilla says he was joking; Lacson stands by his story
  9. Revilla ‘consulted’ Lacson on how he evaded arrest
  10. Police rule out foul play in Helena Belmonte’s death as boyfriend is ‘traumatized’
Advertisement

News

  • Henares on Pacquiao bashing: I did not start this
  • Drilon, Nancy Binay urge Filipinos to strengthen faith
  • ‘Yolanda’ toll now at 6,300 – NDRRMC
  • ‘Mom, I love you,’ says text from student on sinking ferry
  • Moderate earthquake jolts southern Iran
  • Sports

  • Power Pinays smash India in Asian Women’s Club volleyball opener
  • PH youth boxers off to stumbling start in AIBA World tilt
  • Durant has 42, Thunder beat Pistons 112-111
  • Walker leads Bobcats over Bulls in OT, 91-86
  • Man City slips further out of title contention
  • Lifestyle

  • Pro visual artists, lensmen to judge Pagcor’s photo contest
  • ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  • This is not just a farm
  • Clams and garlic, softshell crab risotto–not your usual seafood fare for Holy Week
  • Moist, extra-tender blueberry muffins
  • Entertainment

  • Will Arnett files for divorce from Amy Poehler
  • American rapper cuts own penis, jumps off building
  • Jay Z to bring Made in America music fest to LA
  • Why Lucky has not bought an engagement ring for Angel
  • Derek more private with new girlfriend
  • Business

  • Asia stocks fail to match Wall Street gains
  • Fired Yahoo exec gets $58M for 15 months of work
  • PH presses bid to keep rice import controls
  • PSEi continues to gain
  • Number of retrenched workers rose by 42% in ’13
  • Technology

  • Netizens seething in anger over Aquino ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Filipinos #PrayForSouthKorea
  • Taylor Swift tries video blogging, crashes into fan’s bridal shower
  • DOF: Tagaytay, QC best at handling funds
  • Smart phone apps and sites perfect for the Holy Week
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 17, 2014
  • A humbler Church
  • Deepest darkness
  • ‘Agnihotra’ for Earth’s health
  • It’s the Holy Week, time to think of others
  • Global Nation

  • Syria most dangerous country for journalists, PH 3rd—watchdog
  • Japan says visa-free entry still a plan
  • First Fil-Am elected to Sierra Madre, Calif. city council
  • UC Irvine cultural night to dramatize clash of values in immigrant family
  • Filipino sweets and info served at UC Berkeley Spring Fest
  • Marketplace
    Advertisement